Today is Memorial Day. I hesitate to say we are celebrating Memorial Day because I consider the word “celebrating” an oxymoron description of what today means. During my time growing up, I was taught by my father that Memorial Day was a day to remember those who have died in the service of our country. As a WWII veteran, he took Memorial Day very seriously.
Over time, Memorial Day seems to have been lost on most Americans. I don’t say that to be mean, but rather, since only about 1% of the population now serve in the military, the meaning of the day is lost on most of us. During past wars like WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam almost everyone knew someone who served. As a result days like Memorial Day became more personal for everyone. Especially since almost everyone knew someone who had served, been wounded, or killed in one of these wars.
Today things are different. Since 9/11, we have been engaged in two very long wars. The war in Iraq has come to and end, and the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end. However, the veterans have become a back-burner issue. Thousands of our men and women have been killed or wounded during these two wars. Thousands more suffer from damage not of a physical nature. But, what are we doing for them? What are we doing to remember those who have fallen, and those who need our help?
The VA is currently in a lot of trouble. There are some very serious allegations about people dying waiting to be seen by a doctor. Some allege that paperwork has been forged to show that waiting times are down. These are very serious allegations. But, to most of us who are veterans, it is nothing new. We have had a history of waiting long periods of time to see a doctor for many years. The VA hospitals are simply overrun with patients. Especially since the onset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It was simply a matter of time for this kind of scandal to surface. Although the VA does shoulder most of the blame, we cannot forget that Congress sets the budget for the VA. Ever since I put on the uniform, I have watched year after year as Congress systematically reduced requested budget numbers from the VA. This wasn’t done along party lines either. Both sides are just as guilty.
How is it that the VA has come to this? It is mainly because veterans, as a matter of fact, are usually forgotten once they are out of the service. That is a cultural issue, not just a political one. Without proper funding, the VA cannot hire enough people to fill all of the positions at their hospitals and clinics. There are hundreds of open positions at VA facilities all across the country. They have been forced to cut back services to many veterans who are not “rated with a disability”.
It goes even beyond that. Millions of veterans are homeless and living on the streets. Millions of veterans have literally been tossed onto the trash heap of humanity. They suffer from things like PTSD. But instead of receiving the help they need, they are shunned. When they return from war, they cannot find a job. The cannot get all of the benefits and help they deserve. They are simply forgotten or ignored.
There are private organizations that try to help the veterans. But, even they are limited in what they can do and who they can help. Groups like the Wounded Warriors Project offer all kinds of assistance to veterans who were wounded in the wars. But their outreach is limited. They try their best, but they cannot help everyone.
Of course, the real question is why are these private charitable organizations even necessary? Why isn’t our government doing everything they can? Why aren’t veteran’s needs being met by the very government that sent them in harm’s way? The first answer that springs to mind is that it isn’t politically feasible. But why not? Because the average citizen doesn’t know what the veteran is going through, and is not really interested.
Veterans are not looking for handouts. Veterans are proud people who just want a fair shake. They earned medical help. They earned a chance at a good job. They earned respect. A veteran wants nothing more than anyone else. A fair chance to heal and work hard at obtaining the American Dream they fought to defend. Why is that too much to ask?
So, on days like today, there is a lot of ceremony showing respect for the fallen. There is a lot of political speeches about how these men and women made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. There is a lot of people patting themselves on the back for showing they “care” about veterans today. People will utter “thank you for serving” to veterans. People will wave flags and watch parades, and then go home and have a backyard bar-b-q. But, tomorrow, it will be business as usual.
Tomorrow veterans will still be waiting to see a doctor. Tomorrow veterans will still be living on the streets. Tomorrow veterans will still be looking for that elusive job. Tomorrow veterans will only have other veterans to lean on. It would be nice if tomorrow, instead of just looking for someone to blame for the mess at the VA, Congress would spend a little time to try to determine what veterans really need. Trying to find out what was the real cause of this scandal. How can they fix the system they helped create? Maybe then, tomorrow can be a little brighter for veterans. Don’t we owe them that much?