Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Veterans Day...still relevant after all these years

The first time I was at all conscious of Veterans’ Day, I was actually still on active duty. The ship made a port call in Boston and I had driven the command’s van from our home port of Norfolk up the coast with a couple of crew members who were required to stay behind a couple of extra days. The 11th of the month was actually on a Saturday evening, so a couple of buddies, against all sane advice, decided to venture out into the one place we were all told not to go: The Combat Zone – essentially Boston’s red light district as I remember it. Why I consented to go is still a mystery to me.  Perhaps I was still just too young, impressionable, and wanting to fit in. While I wasn’t into carousing that evening, I do remember my compadrĂ©s trying to get free drinks since it was Veterans’ Day. Suffice it to say, they paid full price for their libations and their stack of ones was duly depleted by midnight.
Today, it seems like rather than we veterans trying to get a deal, it’s the retailers who are trying to draw us in and get our business. Thankfully, there are a number of restaurateurs and retailers who not only want our ongoing business, but are willing to pony up a free meal or discount to say as much. As a vet, myself, I’m grateful for people like these who aren’t just all talk. I do make it a point to say, “thanks” and I do write letters to recognize the good people do. After all, it’s too easy to complain and I see a lot of good in the world that all too often goes overlooked.
That said, there still is a lot of work yet to be done.
It would be very easy to rant about our continued involvement in South Asia, but it would be equally easy to question a lot of things about our defense spending. The role of US foreign policy isn’t something that is easily quantified in a post-Cold War world and crawling around a politician's mind to divine intent is better left to those who are  fluent in double-speak and innuendo! Diplomacy and policy are complicated as it is ,but its execution too often gets lost in translation as we see played out on the font pages of our favorite news rag. The United States has made a lot of commitments and despite a few diplomatic mis-steps, I think it's fair to say that our soldiers, sailors, and Marines will almost always be impeccable stewards of a sterling American reputation. If only we could get Washington on board on that same reputation, we'd have a winning combination!
When the Vietnam War was hot and heavy, we as a country were glued to the TV. Walter Cronkite read casualty counts as almost personal and I can remember being shushed out of the room as the footage showing that last helicopter left the US embassy's rooftop played on the CBS Evening News. It was tense and it was real and as our veterans came home to the country that not only drafted them for service, but as well subjected them to horrors that we can only glibly imagine through Hollywood’s filter. Yet, they were unbelievably spat upon and derided. Some still bear unseen scars and others just dropped off the grid.
Thankfully, we’re finally acknowledging our failure as a society to these returning veterans and trying to atone for some serious abuse to those veterans, but the political climate and bureaucracy in tending to these very real wounds is abysmally slow and the will to make things happen just isn’t there. Helping veterans makes for a great sound bite when it’s getting a WWII vet in a wheel chair into the memorial in Washington, DC, but getting a strapping doe-eyed 20-something mental health care after seeing his buddy vaporize in front of him isn’t so glamorous. Call it “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” or now “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” it’s the same and it’s debilitating. And we need to ensure our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don’t suffer the same abuses and neglect our Vietnam servicemen and women did.
When requests for help from the Veteran’s Administration go on for months on end, especially from someone in dire need, that’s clearly unacceptable; when politicians use veterans for a photo op to make them look like they’re the solution instead of the problem, that’s unconscionable; when we, as a people, write off those who have the role of defending us to a sound bite or statistic, we’re kidding ourselves that we’re safe. We may not have Walter Cronkite tearing up on national news, but each death is still a person with family and friends. It's still very personal.
Now, let me say as a veteran myself, that I’m not suggesting that anyone owes me anything at all. I’m speaking from a vantage of witnessing relatives, friends, and fellow veterans at the VA hospitals where I’ve received treatment for leukemia. The vast majority of us are well-adjusted, despite our bumps, bruises, and illnesses, but when mistakes are made or when someone falls through the cracks, it's more than a bureaucratic screw-up...it’s a life and the rules are not the same as yours or mine. I’m not talking about the cardboard signs held by people claiming to be homeless vets on the side of the road and I honestly question the veracity of most of these anyway. I’m not even challenging the patriotism of the magnetic yellow ribbons on the back of vehicles (at least not today). I am pointing out that homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide are all the very real side effects of war service and we must, must, must never stop getting these people the help they need to return to the life they left and love.

More often than not, a vet just needs to be with another vet. There's just an unspoken understanding, a common language and a pride that is really hard to break through when crisis is at hand. Whether it's to regale each other with "sea stories," share common experiences, commiserate, or share a drink, the camaraderie that the military wrought is a bond unbreakable and despite the difference in the particular armed force we served, once we're a vet, the differences all melt away and we're all on the same team.

Here are some resources I stand behind. I know they will help and they are starting points where you can point veterans, contribute, or volunteer. Certainly, you can do your own search should you be so inclined.

From the Veterans Administrations for returning OEF/OIF veterans; for homeless veterans. When I'm at the VA asking specifically about these issues, I get answers because these particular issues have gnawed at me.  The VA may have its due criticisms, but they're doing what they can with limited resources to help our homeless and returning vets.
The American Legion - Simply veterans helping veterans...something I can get my head around. I am a member.
Veterans of Foreign Wars - To foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts. To serve our veterans, the military, and our communities. To advocate on behalf of all veterans. I see these people at the VA helping all the time.

Wounded Warrior Project - To raise awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. I have contributed and would like to continue so with charity bicycle rides. You'll hear more about these people from me. They have my respect.

All I can say from being a veteran and a beneficiary of the VA health services, I am deeply appreciative of those who are involved in making a difference. The medical staff at both VA facilities I've been seen are compassionate and genuine and the volunteers that have brought in books, service animals, or just visited made a world of difference...and so can you. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort, just a little time and some heart. So many people don't have the support network I do and could truly benefit from your smile and attention.

You don't have to have the answers when it comes to solving veteran problems, but you can help and you don't have to do it on Veterans Day any more than you have to wait until Thanksgiving to lend a hand to the local food shelf or wait until Christmas to buy for an underprivileged family. The need is 24/7/365.

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