Sunday, June 24, 2012

Unacceptable Treatment of our Veterans


According to the election year polling data that serves as a constant reflection of what we—as a nation—care about, the economy consistently ranks at the very top of the list.

No big shock there.
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But as you tick down the recitals of what we perceive as our most pressing troubles, nowhere on the list of worries that supposedly rule our voting preferences do we see anything that reflects our concern over the following shameful fact of the American experience—every eighty minutes, each and every single day of the week, a veteran will take his or her own life.

I’m going to write that down again.

Every eighty minutes a veteran will take his or her own life.

So serious is the problem that veterans of our military services now represent 20 percent of all suicides in the United States despite the fact that only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military. Many of these people will jump in front of a train, put a bullet in their head or take some other way out because the United States of America – that would be you and me – is flat out welching on the deal we make with the people we send off to fight our wars. They promise to put their bodies into these deadly, bloody battles and we, in return, promise to take care of their war related injuries—both physical and mental—when they return.

The veterans are delivering on their promise. We very much are not.

And yet, remarkably, so many of us —including the two candidates who presently seek the office of Commander-In-Chief—continue to feel comfortable thumping our chests and declaring that America is an ‘extraordinary’ nation among nations, even as we breach agreements with those who were willing to die on foreign soil because we ordered them to do so.

There has been no shortage of well-written articles published by some of the largest media outlets in the country bringing this disaster to our attention. They often appear under a headline containing the words ‘national shame’ and tell us the story of a veteran who tried to get the care needed only to find that he or she ran short on their ability to ‘hang in there’ while waiting for an appointment with someone who might be able to help—an appointment we are contractually and morally, obligated to provide.

There are extraordinary non-profit organizations, like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), who work 24/7 to bring this to our attention as they try to fill in the gap created by our malfeasance by sponsoring suicide hot lines connecting them to veterans in the effort to stem the sickening tide of suicide. Yet, despite the efforts of the many writers attempting to get us to focus on the problem, and the struggles of the IAVA and others to right this obscene wrong, none of it is enough to compensate for the fact that you and I are, at the end of the day, a bunch of deal breaking, contract breaching welchers who don’t care enough about our promises to those who would die for us to view this as a concern worthy of making a pollster’s list.

Obscene wait times for psychiatric visits.

How long is the wait time for a vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or some other combat related mental illnesses?

According to a report filed by the Inspector General, only 49 percent of veterans receive a full mental evaluation within 14 days of their first contact for mental health care—despite VA claims that rate is 95 percent. And while , in some cities, such as Denver, veterans wait 19 days on average to see a physiatrist, in others, such as Spokane, they wait as many as 80 days to get help.

The result of our failing to meet our obligations? See above – a veteran takes his or her own life every eighty minutes.
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Still, the politicians remain largely silent.

I can recall the words ‘veteran suicide’ mentioned by Ron Paul once or twice during the GOP debate series—yet neither the media nor the contestants viewed the subject as rising to a level of importance that would merit a full discussion during the Republican debate spectacles. While this failure of government would, seemingly, be a terrific point of attack for the Republicans, they do not bother with it because they know all too well that the public does not sufficiently care about this to make it an election issue.

And while President Obama did sign The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, promising to improve mental health care services to veterans, the reality is that the law has produced little—if any—benefit as waiting periods for veterans in desperate need of mental health care have grown to the point of absurdity.

It isn’t like the President is unaware. While still a candidate for the office he would eventually inhabit, Barack Obama had this to say in response to the growing suicide problem-Today’s news is a tragic reminder of the staggering and ongoing costs of the Iraq war, particularly on our troops and their families. We are more than five years into this war, and the Pentagon and VA are still unprepared to treat the unseen wounds of battle. We know that incidence of psychological injury increase with each additional tour of duty in Iraq, and that our troops are not getting the support they need. Too many are falling through the cracks because they need help but feel they can’t get it. When I am president, we’ll hire more mental health professionals, increase training to recognize the signs and to reject the stigma of seeking care, and enhance mental health screening and treatment from enlistment, to deployment, to reentry into civilian life.

And yet, we appear to be worse off today than when the President promised to undertake the necessary improvements in 2008—and that is, in no small measure, the fault of you and I.

It is our fault because we view this as an unfortunate situation that is happening to someone else and, therefore, does not rise to the level of importance that we attach to jobs, healthcare, national debt, etc.

But, in thinking that this state of affairs, while sad, is someone else’s problem, we are wrong.

It’s very simple. If our government can’t make good on a straightforward contractual obligation to our veterans, what chance do you imagine we have that our government will keep its promises to the rest of us when it comes to any number of more complicated issues?

And when I say this is simple, it is precisely that. All that it takes is some reorganization in the Veterans Administration (which is underway but moving far too slowly) and enough money to hire the mental health experts needed to meet the challenge. It will take bringing in extra people to catch up with the huge backlog in VA applications, not only for mental health care but disability qualification and other medical need. It will require keeping sufficient professionals in place to deal with the huge influx of veterans coming into the system over the next few years.

If this means taking a few bucks out of my future Medicare benefits, fine. If the money has to come from my social security or be produced by cutting back on ordering some fighter jets, great. It is well worth it because a nation that welches on its promises to its veterans is not a nation that can be trusted by the remainder of its citizens when it comes to making good on promises to the general public.

You can actually do something about this.

If you are troubled by this situation, and you certainly ought to be, there is something you can do.
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While I know that those who oppose this Administration will imagine that simply voting for the Republican candidate is all it will take, let me just say that you are wrong. And even if were that simple, think about how many veterans will die between now and the swearing in of a new president next January.
Google your elected officials in the House and the Senate to find their websites. Go there, find the comment section (which is actually taken seriously by your elected representatives) and tell your Member of Congress and Senator to (a) address this problem without turning it into just another political football and (b) clean this up before the next election – or else.

You will be amazed at how quickly this problem will be reversed.

A nation is its people and a people that would cheat its military veterans is far from extraordinary—it is a nation that is pathetic.


I write on politics with a 'specialty' in health care policy. My interest in the field began with an experience fifteen years ago in a hospital in Los Angeles that has led me to my current life where I consult a number of government officials and health care advocacy groups. In addition to my contributions to Forbes, I write a political column at The Washington Monthly. On Saturdays, you can find me on your TV arguing with my more conservative colleagues on "Forbes on Fox" on the Fox News Network and serving as a liberal talking head on other Fox News and Fox Business Network shows.

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