A veteran’s perspective: Beyond Walter Reed
Beneath the troubling revelations about the deplorable state of affairs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center lies something even uglier: A pattern of chronic neglect of veterans and their families by Washington politicians who will stand in front of any group of soldiers during an election year, but will stand behind none of them when it counts the most.
The Walter Reed scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Skyrocketing rates of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, suicide and divorce that have long plagued the veterans community- frequently the result of lasting psychological scars like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – are a national disgrace. And with more than a third of recently returning vets showing symptoms of PTSD, experts already predict that these disturbing trends will get worse in the decades to come.
Meanwhile, wait times at VA hospitals and mental health clinics, VA user fees and co-pays, and the backlog of veteran’s benefits claims are all increasing at exponential rates. There’s no question that the staff at VA and DOD facilities do the best they can with the limited resources allocated. The negligence illustrated by the Walter Reed fiasco is systemic, and a direct result of caring for war veterans on the cheap.
Since 2002, leading veterans’ advocates have warned of a coming storm of demand for veterans’ mental health and medical services (VA caseload has increased from 6 million in 2001, to 8 million in 2006). To date, the federal response has been Hurricane Katrinaesque, at best. VA health services were under-funded by more than $2 billion in each of the past two years, and per veteran mental health spending is down nearly 30% over the past decade. And earlier this year, the Bush Administration proposed cutting VA spending again in 2009.
While our country remains sharply divided over the Iraq war, I have no doubt that all Americans “support the troops” and believe that our all-volunteer military represents our nation’s best. Unfortunately, as we have seen this past week, the results in Washington simply don’t match the rhetoric. Perhaps that’s because veteran’s service organizations focus their limited resources on helping their clients heal and navigate VA bureaucracy, instead of financing political campaigns, or hiring high priced lobbyists like Jack Abramoff to plea their case to Congress. They shouldn’t have to. In fact, it was the abject failure of Congress and the White House to keep its promises to those who serve that led me, and more than 70 fellow veterans to run for Congress in 2006. And it is the continuing pattern of neglect that leads me to believe that many of us will be back in 2008.
As a Vietnam Veteran with a son who will soon deploy on his fourth rotation in Iraq, I would argue that the greatest possible threat to the morale of our troops and the security of our nation is elected officials who vote to make tax cuts for billionaires and oil companies, as well as their own pay raises, a higher priority than properly equipping our military, repairing outdated healthcare facilities for wounded soldiers, and ensuring the VA has the resources needed to meet the tsunami of aftercare needs that they will soon be facing.
In 1781, then General George Washington said: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they view veterans of previous wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” This statement is as true today as it was then.
Ultimately, veterans aren’t looking for a handout, or more partisan gridlock. Nor are they asking for some elaborate war memorial, the select firing of a few politically expeditious scapegoats, or a new “White House Commission” to study the problem until the media spotlight moves onto something else. They want the quality care they’ve earned and deserve. By uniting behind our collective obligations to those who serve and sacrifice for freedom, volunteering and contributing financially to local military/veterans support organizations that serve those most in need, and holding our elected Representatives accountable for results instead of rhetoric, we can all be part of the solution.
Veterans have kept their promise to America. Now it’s America’s turn.
Lt. Col. Charlie Brown, Ret., lives in Roseville, CA, and spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a rescue helicopter pilot at the end of the Vietnam War, and has flown reconnaissance missions in support of military operations around the world. In 2006, he was the Democratic Nominee for Congress in California’s 4th District.
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