News of the war on terrorism made front-page headlines last week, but it wasn’t an update on the surge or reports from the brass that consumed the papers. It was a story about America’s soldiers.
A study released Sunday revealed that five soldiers try to kill themselves every day. Before the war on terrorism began, the rate was only one each day. Other studies show that about 30 percent of soldiers have sought mental help upon returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Reports reveal that roughly 17 of every 100,000 men and women stationed overseas in the U.S. Army committed suicide last year – an all-time high – and twice as many took their own lives back home. And the government doesn’t seem to care.
It has never been easy for soldiers to return from battle to resume life as they knew it, but now – for veterans of the war in Iraq coming back to today’s America – it seems like a Herculean task. Not only are soldiers returning from the Middle East more likely to have witnessed brutality and experienced combat than those returning from other recent wars, but when it comes to our valiant Purple Hearts, the Bush administration has revealed the heart-shaped hole in its chest.
In the last six years, there have been myriad incidents and revelations exemplifying the Bush administration’s substandard treatment of its war veterans. From last year’s investigation exposing the inscrutable conditions and inefficiencies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to the half-baked Wounded Warriors Act that stops short of applying all of its benefits retroactively, to the president’s recent $3.1 trillion budget proposal that would cut veterans’ health coverage while pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into military spending, the federal government has exhibited gross insensitivity.
It is increasingly clear that this White House, which seems to play and discard soldiers as pawns on a board, doesn’t accept veterans as a fundamental component of war. David Chu, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, wasn’t bashful about saying so when he scrupulously told The Wall Street Journal that veterans’ costs “are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself.” It seems that our administration missed what I consider to be a very moral and basic concept: Waging a war means assuming the costs of the battle itself and shouldering responsibility for the aftermath – both overseas and on the home front. As a consequence, our disabled veterans are returning home to be screwed right out of what their valor merits.
And, as the federal government shirks this responsibility, I’m ashamed to say, so does our university.
If you haven’t heard, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America have brought a lawsuit against the University for failing to comply with, and altogether dodging, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a federal law mandating the accommodation of disabled individuals in public facilities built or renovated after 1990. I am not suggesting that the University satisfy the organization’s demands simply because they are veterans, and I don’t believe the University Board of Regents should bow on that principle alone. But the fact that former service members initially filed the suit is undeniably relevant; it makes the University’s behavior in the case particularly appalling.
The ruling in this case will become precedent for ADA claims filed thereafter. In filing the suit, MPVA is attempting to make the lives of disabled Americans across the country more manageable. In resisting the suit, the University is preventing that. Furthermore, these veterans are looking out for the people who have endured the brutalities of war – and the University is preventing that.
Roughly 130,000 troops are in Iraq right now, with thousands more stationed in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. It is inevitable that many of them will return home with serious disabilities and add to the 100,000 paralyzed veterans in the country. And the Bush administration has ensured that re-integrating into a reasonably normal life will be an uphill battle. If the MPVA wins the lawsuit against the University, would each of the 1,000 wheelchair-accessible Big House seats mandated by the ADA be filled? Probably not. But would a young wheelchair-bound veteran ever be prevented from cheering for the Maize and Blue at a football game for lack of a place to use the bathroom or a place to sit? Definitely not.
As one of the nation’s leading public institutions, and as a university that claims to exemplify the highest of moral standards and represent the consummate values and character of this country, this school has a duty to support those who have sacrificed for our nation. And thus, if the veterans triumph, and one day I attend a football game to find some of those 1,000 seats empty, I will not be bitter. I will be proud to know that my university upheld American integrity when this country could not do it for itself.
But for now I am embarrassed because it appears our regents and our president are going to great lengths to make sure that this does not happen.
Ashlea Surles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.