Tag Archives: veterans

War Wounds: VA Ignores an “Epidemic” of Veteran Suicides

This Veterans Day, tributes continue for the 13 soldiers killed last week at Ford Hood, gunned down by one of their own. It was a shocking and terrible event, which warranted the outpouring of sorrow it inspired. Yet every single day, on average, more current and past members of the U.S. armed services die by their own hands than were killed on November 5 at Fort Hood.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ own calculations (which it tried to conceal from a CBS News probe, and from the public), there are “about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.” That’s well over 6,000 a year. In addition, the VA admits that “suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.” Rates are highest among young men in their twenties, veterans of our current wars. And these numbers do not include suicides by active duty members of the military. In 2008, these numbered nearly 250 (Army 128, Navy 41, Marines 41, Air Force 38)–five every week.

There are no public outpourings of grief for these servicemen and women, whose deaths must often have followed prolonged suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, or plain old despair. There are no weeks of nonstop media coverage, no tributes at Veterans Day parades, and no memorial services with eulogies by the president. In fact, it has been a longstanding policy that the families of soldiers who commit suicide do not even recieve a letter of condolence from the president.

At best, there are sporadic news reports noting the high rates of suicide, and the occassional Congressional hearing. And while increasing lip service has been paid to improving mental health care for veterans, in reality, the VA has set up multiple obstacles to such care.  As The Nation reported last year, the VA has delayed or denied disability and medical benefits to thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because they couldn’t “prove” that their conditions were “service-related.” In addition, “a recent Inspector General report found that 70 percent of VA facilities don’t have a system to track suicidal veterans. Only a handful of VA hospitals have rehab programs that include families. And soldiers injured today face a benefits waiting list more than 650,000 veterans long.” One doctor in the VA’s leadership who publicly criticized these shortcomings was summarily fired.

Even the true statistics on veteran suicides would never have come out were it not for a class action lawsuit by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth, who sued the VA in federal court. According to the veterans’ groups:

Many veterans who have fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, as well as those who served in earlier conflicts, are not being given the disability compensation, medical services and care they need. A much higher percentage of these veterans suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) than veterans of any previous war, due to the multiple tours many are serving, the unrelenting vigilance required by the circumstances, the greater prevalence of brain injuries caused by the types of weaponry in use, among other reasons. Despite this, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (“DVA”) is failing to provide adequate and timely benefits and medical care.

The judge who heard the case in federal district court in San Francisco–himself an 86-year-old veteran of World War II–said he was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ cause, but he found against them. According to VCS, “In his decision, Judge Conti held that although it is clear to the Court that the VA may need ‘a complete overhaul’ the the power to remedy this crisis lies with the other branches of government.” In other words, if the VA can’t or won’t fix itself, it’s time for Congress and the White House to step up and do something about this travesty.

D-Day, the Queen, and a Wartime Childhood

By now we’ve all heard about how Queen Elizabeth was snubbed by Nicholas Sarkozy, who was apparently so dazzled by the prospect of Barack Obama’s visit that he neglected to invite the queen to any of the events commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. (In a last-minute face-saver, Prince Charles agreed to attend instead.) Some people are blaming Gordon Brown, who was too busy trying to save his political skin to make sure the queen got her due. But the British press, which is having a field day over this royal faux pas, has directed most of its rage at Sarko, and at the ungrateful French in general.

The Daily Mail declared the snub “an insult to the memory of the 17,556 British and 5,316 Canadian troops who died to free France and are buried there.” Commentators in the same paper took things a step further, declaring Sarzkozy a “diminutive egomaniac,” and denouncing the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys whose “widespread collaboration with  the Nazi occupiers” made it all the more difficult for the British to “save” them from tyranny.  

I don’t go in for French-bashing, and under normal circumstances, I couldn’t care less about anyone in the British royal family, or any of the pomp and protocol that surround them. I think it’s great that Michelle Obama dared to touch the queen–she could have given her a fist bump for all I care. In fact, I wonder why the Brits don’t just do away with the monarchy altogether, and save themselves a lot of money. (Although they’d still have to deal with MPs cleaning their moats at the public’s expense.) But when it comes to anything having to do with the Second World War, I’ve got a soft spot for the British in general, and in particular for HRH–who lives in my earliest memories as Princess Elizabeth. 

I had a wartime childhood. When I was very small, we used to sitting around the radio, listening to Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the streets of London during the Blitz.

Later, when America was in the war and my family lived in Washington, D.C., we listened with our blackout curtains drawn. I remember hearing the news about D-Day, and later seeing the newsreels when we went to the movies. Those were the sounds and images of my childhood.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the APS.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the ATS.

I also have a clear memory of Princess Elizabeth, who was just ten years older than I was and still a teenager, speaking from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. I don’t know exactly when this happened or what she said, but I remember that she and her family seemed cheerful and apparently fearless despite being in a ravaged city, at the heart of a threatened land.  Later, the princess worked as an ambulence driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. As the press has rightly pointed out, she is the last living head of state to have actually served in World War II.

It all sounds pretty sentimental, I know. But there’s something else going on here, as well–something that has to do with age and the generations. It is widely assumed that the 65th anniversary will be the last major gathering of D-Day veterans on the landing beaches, since the youngest of them are now in their 80s. Speaking at the American Cemetery on the cliffs over Omaha Beach this morning, Barack Obama talked about a veteran of the 101st Airborne who had come to Normandy for the anniversary, and died last night in his sleep.

None of the heads of state present at the ceremonies was even alive during the war. If the queen had been there, at least she would be commemorating a lived experience–not something recorded in history books and PBS documentaries, and remembered by fewer and fewer of us with every passing year.