This past Memorial Day holiday I read a few articles written by veterans that prompted more than the usual amount of thought about the meaning of the Holiday – or rather our responsibility on this holiday. One article cited the fact that more active duty US servicemen have died in the past year from suicide than by combat. Mental health professionals speculate that the multiple deployments into highly stressful combat situations (where actual combat was unpredictable and combatants often disguised as civilians) has exacted a terrible toll on soldiers. One thing is not speculation: the failure to recognize and provide adequate treatment to help our veterans has made the problem far worse.
I talked with a friend of mine who had served during the Viet Nam Era. When he was discharged and returned to attend college at the University of Michigan his experiences had already made him feel “different”. His wardrobe of fatigues identified him as a target for the occasional derisive comment, or more commonly, the silent stares. He tried to take shelter one day at the local VFW Hall in Ann Arbor, only to be refused a beer because he had “lost the war”. He spent his entire college experience nearly completely isolated. The only normal college experience was singing “The Victors” when the Wolverines scored a touchdown. There were thousands of veterans like him, not only on college campuses but across the spectrum of life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Veterans of American wars have always felt changed, if not alienated, when they return home. It’s part of the war experience that the human mind can’t really comprehend. Historically veterans of every major war have had to make it back pretty much on their own, with the notable exception of WWII veterans. When my father was discharged from the service the Country provided him, and every veteran, a college education, a guaranteed mortgage and a Veteran’s Hospital system that rivaled the best medical centers in the Country. Today, veterans can get barely 2 years college tuition from their benefits, VA loans are difficult to get, and the VA Hospital system has been allowed to deteriorate to Third World Country status.
I came to the conclusion this past weekend that Memorial Day was a responsibility to those of us who have not served in the armed forces. It should be an occasion when we all take a hard look at what we need to DO for our veterans and not just express a perfunctory “thanks” as we barbeque and toss back a beer. Take some time this week and write your Representative or Senator and demand that the military budget for HUMAN costs and benefits be increased. It takes maybe 15 minutes of your day, compared to a lifetime that vets have given us.