When I returned from Vietnam, I spent a year at Kingsbridge Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx, learning how to live life as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. Life magazine called the conditions in my ward a "medical slum." My closest friend found the despair, coupled with indifference from the hospital and the Veterans Administration, too much to bear. He committed suicide. So did several other vets I knew.
A lot has changed since my days under the care of the VA, but our returning soldiers still face the challenge of massive bureaucracies (Department of Defense and VA) that do not always respond to their needs and deployment policies that have stretched many to the breaking point.
A host of new disturbing trends face our 21st century military. Chief among them is a gigantic wave of psychological and neurological wounds of war. Also, the large increase in women in uniform has brought with it a sharp uptick in sexual assault.
Still, despite their honorable service and sacrifices, servicemembers upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan often find themselves having to fight the military itself or the Department of Veterans Affairs to get needed benefits and services. Procedures for getting this care and benefits can be arcane and difficult to navigate.
That's why good information is critical to accessing the programs and benefits that are available to active military, Guard, reservists, veterans, and their family members. It's the reason Veterans for America created The American Veterans and Servicemembers Survival Guide, a downloadable book with 28 chapters.
The Guide explains what vets, servicemembers, and their families are entitled to and how to get it. (Clearly there is a need for a road map to accessing these services; since we made the Survival Guide available on Veterans for America's website three weeks ago, we've had to purchase more bandwidth. Twice.)
Going after these services and benefits requires time and energy. I've seen far too many people give up on confronting the challenges these mammoth agencies put up. We hope that with this guide people who need help will be better informed and better able to prevail in the quest for justice.
Additionally, we are doing small runs of printed copies and placing them in Family Assistance Centers and other DoD and VA facilities across the country. Your help can help us get copies in the hands of veterans and military families that need them most.
Bobby Muller is the founder of Veterans for America, an advocacy and humanitarian organization whose primary mission is to ensure that our country meets the needs of servicemembers and veterans who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).