It’s that weekend again – officially known as Memorial Day, unofficially known as the start of summer (even though all purists know the solstice doesn’t arrive for at least three more weeks).
For most of us, this means one of two things – we’re either somewhere delightful for a few days, or we are stuck at home silently fuming that we didn’t get our acts together back in February to book somewhere delightful.
As a non-native American, not entirely familiar with all the rituals of my adopted country, I typically fall into the latter camp – stuck in the big city, dreaming of the beach. If it wasn’t for the odd sight of the many dapper men in uniform that flood the shores of New York City for the occasion, I’d hardly know that this holiday weekend has a more somber purpose.
Memorial Day is dedicated to honoring the sacrifice of those who die fighting our wars. But apart from the annual ceremony at Arlington Cemetery and some smaller services around the country – attended mostly, I suspect, by those with personal reasons to grieve – the holiday itself has been largely sacrificed on the altar of barbecue, ball games and beer.
You can’t really blame vacation-deprived Americans for wanting to enjoy themselves for a few days. But it’s hard not to think that our service members, both the living and the dead, are being short-changed – and not just because Memorial Day has lost much of its meaning.
Approximately 6,805 men and women died in Operation Iraqi Freedom (the euphemism for the invasion of Iraq) and Operation Enduring Freedom (the euphemism for the invasion of Afghanistan). But, from 2009 to 2011, according to estimates by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 soldiers a day committed suicide – an average of nearly one per hour. That means that, in just one year, more than 8,000 veterans take their own lives – more than the total number of OIF and OEF casualties combined.
We trumpet our troops off to battle, and write paeans to those who don’t return alive, but we could be a lot more invested in helping those who return, and in need of something from us. It’s not just the continuing unemployment situation. According to Military.com, around 30% of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience post-traumatic stress, and an additional 20-25% have had partial post-traumatic stress at some point in their lives.
But veterans still seem like they have to to prove they were traumatized. As outlined in a comprehensive 2011 report by the American Legion, even when a veteran is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury, the treatment they receive is far from adequate. Surely many suicides could be prevented if all veterans received automatic counseling when they return from war.
The shoddy treatment doesn’t stop there. As we are now learning, many veterans are actively being denied timely medical care, even when their problems are life-threatening.
Everyone is mad as hell, or I should say “madder than hell”, having learned that staff members at veterans’ hospitals may have been falsifying data and manipulating waiting lists to cover up delays in treatment. Twenty-six military hospitals are currently under investigation – including one in Phoenix, where 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for care. The president has vowed to fix this scandal, the VA secretary has already been put on notice, and the fallout is just beginning.
This unforgiving response is welcome, but could we all stop pretending to be so shocked already? Was anyone really under the impression that veterans of America’s wars were getting the treatment they needed and deserved? If that were the case, I should have much more difficulty conjuring up an image of a homeless vet with no legs in a wheelchair begging.
A few months ago, the city of Phoenix – yes, the same city where those 40 veterans allegedly died awaiting medical care – triumphantly announced that it was the first city in the country to finally eradicate homelessness among its veteran population. Some homeless vets for whom the city found shelter had been living on the streets since they returned home from active combat duty … in Vietnam.
It’s laudable that a city government is providing housing for these men and women whose lives were, in some cases, permanently compromised after being sent off to fight. But we’re talking about some men who fought in a war that ended nearly 40 years ago. If it took four decades to put a roof over a small number of veterans’ heads, can we really say that we are surprised there are legions of veterans from today’s conflicts languishing on hospital waiting lists?
It’s no wonder that many of us choose to forget about it, even on the one day when we are called upon to remember. So, this Memorial Day, go ahead and enjoy the beach and the beer and the barbecues – but when we’re back in business, let’s be a little more mindful of what we expect other people to endure in our name. Next time we hear hypocrites in Congress waxing lyrical about the troops and demanding bigger defense budgets while they viciously cut food stamps and other vital services that millions of returning veterans rely on, let’s call them out on it. And, when the opportunity arises, let’s vote them out.
Better yet, let’s not allow self-interested politicians to lead us into wars that serve no purpose. That way, on future Memorial Days, there will be fewer fallen heroes and fewer grieving families hoping against hope that their sacrifice will not be forgotten.