“America is blessed to have such brave defenders. They are tomorrow’s veterans, and they are bringing pride to our country. Their service is noble, and it is necessary.”
With those words at a Texas memorial for four American servicemembers killed in Iraq, President Bush marked Veterans Day, a holiday that has taken on a new significance since America’s war with Iraq began in 2003. Regardless of whether we disagree with the path of war that the president has led us down, no one can deny that soldiers sacrifice much for the sake of the rest of us, and they deserve much in return. All too often, however, they are neglected.
A report released last week found that one out of every four homeless people in America is a veteran. The National Alliance to End Homelessness found that 495,400 veterans were homeless at some point during 2006, and on any given night, about 194,254 veterans are homeless. As more and more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, these numbers could rise even further – just as they did in the aftermath of Vietnam. Fortunately, there are things that can be done to alleviate this problem, but it all begins with recognizing it and being willing to face it, something the president has in the past proven unwilling to do.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post did a special report on conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, a place where many soldiers go to recover and recuperate upon their return from the war. The conditions the Post found were shocking: The premises were infested with mice and cockroaches, mold grew unbothered, and in some cases there were significant delays in appropriate treatment. We were appalled that little was being given to veterans even after they had sacrificed so much. President Bush, however, held firm to the platitude that American veterans receive the best possible care.
Bush’s ambivalence on the Walter Reed issue was inexcusable, and that type of thinking must not be allowed to hinder immediate action on the issue of homeless veterans. More and more troops are being shipped overseas, and as the military begins to scrape the bottom of the barrel, two types of soldiers are being shipped out that are especially at risk of becoming homeless upon their return.
One category is those who have completed their service but are sent out again as part of stop-loss, a process that is semi-voluntary at best and a back-door draft at worst. These troops – given that they are on their second, third or fourth tours of duty – are especially susceptible to the mental illness that even the toughest minds can only avoid for so long in a war zone. The other group that is especially vulnerable are the younger soldiers who forego proper schooling or vocational training and join the military out of financial necessity. Upon their return, they often lack the skills to make the transition to normal life and can easily end up homeless.
In light of the spike in the number of homeless vets following the Vietnam War, several programs were put in place to help veterans make a smoother transition. These programs still exist, but, given the increasing number of homeless veterans, they must be expanded. More importantly, we must actively seek out and offer help to returning soldiers, because many are not aware of the problems they will face and are unwilling to seek help on their own.
Providing treatment to overcome the mental illnesses that are plaguing troops in increasing numbers and ensuring that veterans are able to find employment and housing are the most basic services America owes its veterans. It’s easy on Veterans Day to stand solemnly and wax poetic about our immense gratitude for the courage and sacrifices of soldiers. It’s more difficult, but even more necessary, to back up those words with actions.