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Bonnie St. John Headshot

An Inconvenient Truth on Memorial Day

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Many people will spend as much time this weekend thinking about whether rain will douse their parades, or what sauce to use on the BBQ, as they do remembering the brave soldiers who died in battle for the freedoms we relish.

For families of fallen veterans, though, Memorial Day will always be much more personal. A time to remember loved ones with photos, visits to gravesides, and tearful recollections of heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But the inconvenient truth that won't be discussed enough this weekend is that fewer and fewer members of our armed forces are actually dying in today's wars. Increasing medical skill and high-tech military gear means that more soldiers than ever survive brutal terrorist attacks and return with traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, and/or massive physical injuries -- more than 500,000 since 2001. When the military rates you as 70, 80, or even 100 percent disabled, have you not given up your life for your country?

Most people don't know that when a soldier is discharged on disability it often destroys their family. Their pay is reduced to a fraction of what it was, while their cost of living skyrockets without access to housing, commissaries and other benefits of life on a military base. They have also been torn away from their network of supportive friends and community at the most critical time in their lives. Wives (and sometimes husbands), faced with a new brand of Sophie's Choice, divorce their wounded heroes in staggering numbers because they have to decide between being a caregiver for their disabled veteran or becoming the bread-winner and, often, the single parent caring for their children. What would you choose? How would you feel about the country that left you to this fate? Truly these wounded warriors and their families have sacrificed their lives for our country.

The average person attending a Memorial Day parade this weekend will shake hands with any number of disabled vets and sincerely thank them for their service. But they'll walk away thinking to themselves that hundreds of organizations are already helping wounded warriors, so its all good, right?

Here's a reality check: while there are many organizations committed to helping veterans restore their lives and livelihoods, this process is extremely slow, tedious, and, too often, ineffective. Matching military experience of most vets with civilian jobs has been a huge challenge... often more of a public relations effort on the part of big corporations seeking approval in the public eye or garnering favor in the hopes of gaining or preserving government contracts. And when it comes to disabled vets, many groups help with housing, sports, or family trips to a baseball game, but avoid the discussion of employment as an uncomfortable subject. Databases to match soldiers and jobs exist and seem like a quick solution to speed up the process, but they don't substitute for the hard work of transitioning the outlook and expectations of former military personnel for civilian work, nor do they help employers understand how to value military resumes and accommodate various disabilities. The patchwork of organizations across the country providing aid to vets is certainly admirable, but is being overwhelmed by the unprecedented numbers of returning soldiers with and without disabilities. The Wounded Warrior Project is a leading light for fundraising, serving soldiers, and connecting them to other sources of help, but we as a nation need to engage in a larger conversation about whether we are really committed to serving the needs of those who have given their lives -- and are still alive. The National Organization on Disability, where I serve as a board member, has been convening thought leaders on this subject to build support for a broader consensus on what we should be doing as a nation.

NOD's model is built on partnership with the military and research involving hundreds of injured soldiers and their families.

Over the last five years, NOD has implemented a demonstration program that helped more than two-thirds of participating disabled soldiers, rated 50 to 100 percent disabled, go back to school and back to work with new careers and save their families. The demonstration program delivers a tightly integrated web of support that is personal, prolonged, and proactive.

The sad truth is that while CNN's Anderson Cooper is reporting that $56 million dollars has gone into the Disabled Veterans National Foundation with no discernible benefits for actual disabled veterans (11,520 coconut M&Ms and old army dress shoes don't count), the NOD is struggling to keep from closing the doors on a program proven to work. 68 percent of NOD's demonstration participants are employed or in education or job training -- twice the rate of wounded warriors not enrolled in NOD's program.

So, this weekend, while we honor the valiant souls who gave what Abraham Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" on the battlefield, let's also consider the courageous heroes still among us who fought for our lives and now need our help to fight for theirs.

If you would like to help the National Organization on Disability continue serving the most disabled veterans, please click here.