Veterans Day, November 11, a day set aside recognizing the investment and sacrifice our nation’s military veterans is behind us, but looming large in front of what should be a grateful nation is an unmet debt of medical care due our veterans who have willfully served in the country’s defense.
Concerned Veterans for America, a non-profit national advocacy group for retired military personnel and their families, notes that the Department of Veterans Affairs, the national agency tasked with providing veterans care, cancelled or delayed over 20 million medical appointments over the past two years to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic the VA medical facilities were re-directed for Covid-19 patient care, resulting in delayed or cancelled appointments for other medical services. As these appointments have languished so too has the healthcare of our veterans.
The VA is the second largest department in the federal government employing over 367,000 full time health care professionals and support staff at 1,293 healthcare facilities, including 171 medical centers. Despite the immense funds and support the backlog of veterans needing care is growing and shows no indication of relief.
Of particular concern is the number of suicides, approximately 17 per day, recorded among veterans. Rick Disney, the state’s coalition director for Concerned Veterans for America (CV4A), noted in a recent radio interview on WTKF that the persistent annual rate of veteran suicides, approximately 6000 per year, is greater than all the military casualties in the past 20 years of warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Disney, a Marine Corps veteran, noted that 20 years of non-stop warfare since 9-11 has had significant emotional, mental and physical impacts on the returning warriors. “Morale in the military is extremely low,” he noted and that is having a residual effect on other uniformed personnel.
These suicide figures have concerned commanding generals in all the services as well as various veterans’ organizations and yet nothing substantial has been done to address the issue other than public notices that veterans should seek aid if they feel depressed or have suicidal thoughts.
In 2014 the VA’s failure to provide timely, professional service became national news with disclosures that it had intentionally wait-listed thousands of veterans with the expectation that the delays would result in death and thereby reduce the number of recorded backlogs. The backlog numbers were harming the bonus and advancement of VA administrators.
The result was a change in leadership, tweaks to the VA’s operations, embarrassing acknowledgement that services were woefully lacking and a convoluted effort to dismiss many VA leaders who were comfortably ensconced in their jobs with absolutely no oversight. But since that news has disappeared from the national news scene little else has improved.
President Biden, seeing a good political announcement on Veterans Day, directed the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs to improve access to mental health services, including reducing co-payments for mental healthcare, expanding access to telehealth services and making policy recommendations to increase military access to mental health services.
This is all window dressing. There is no reason that the VA has continued its tardy and apathetic delivery of needed services to veterans that was first identified seven years ago.
There are alternatives. Concerned Veterans for America is promoting the use of the VA Mission Act which allows veterans to utilize existing community services in the private sector rather than on enhanced government services that historically are tardy and insufficient.
In addition to increasing accessibility to medical services outside of the government operations, Concerned Veterans is pressing Congress to take a more active role in oversight, something that was promised in reaction to events in Phoenix, AZ, seven years ago after it was disclosed that 1,400 to 1,600 veterans were denied medical attention for months.
With approximately 670,000 veteran residents, North Carolina ranks eighth in the nation. Onslow County leads the state with 25% of its population composed of military retirees and nearby Craven County ranks sixth with 16%. Carteret County comes in at eighth in the state with 14% of its population identified as veterans. These numbers should spur the state and communities to voice concern about more immediate attention for our veterans.
Columnist Petula Dvorak, writing in the Washington Post Thursday, told the story of U.S. Air Force Sgt. Kenneth Omar Santiago, who took his life Monday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. “Statistics tell us at least 16 other members of the military community also took their lives that Monday night and every night -the average daily toll- leading up to Veterans Day, when the nation thanks veterans for their service with a free 10-piece order of boneless chicken wings or a free doughnut.”
The Post columnist quotes Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his Veterans Day speech as saying, “We are working so hard to provide the best medical and mental health care possible for those whose military service has concluded. We must prove capable of treating the wounds we see, as well as the ones we cannot see.”
“But that message hasn’t trickled down to the troops,” Ms. Dvorak concludes.
No, it has not “trickled down to the troops” because Washington and our military leaders are too busy finding artificial victims of racial and gender bias in order to remake the military into a “woke” institution. This has distracted attention and action from the services that are needed by those to whom the nation is indebted- our veterans.