My trip to Denver for the Democratic Convention seems like a homecoming, stirring memories of my first trip fifty years ago . At that time I was a fresh-faced seventeen year-old entering the US Air Force Academy, then in temporary quarters at Lowrey Air Force Base. For this homecoming, I will be picked up at the airport by one of my many classmates in the area. Today those friends I feel closest to are those with whom I spent four years of struggle to graduate and many years in the Air Force where we served, fought and too many died.
Thoughts of those classmates and our fates also brings back memories of the homecoming when I returned from a combat tour in Vietnam. That 1968 homecoming was not nearly as welcoming. My reception ranged from my family's relieved and awkward embrace to hostility from strangers who saw me in uniform. For many of my comrades their return was painful and disturbing as they faced the brutality of those who put the blame for the war on those who fought it. To make matters worse, the military and veterans health care system was neither prepared for nor responsive to the needs of the veterans.
Fortunately, the American people have learned to distinguish between the men and women who risk the dangers of war and the government that decided to go to war. Troops passing through airports are regularly applauded and their sacrifice recognized.
Despite this, the unfortunate fact is that not everything has changed. The administration has been slow to follow up its "support the troops" rhetoric with needed military and veterans' health care funding. Waiting lines for veterans are longer and there seems to be more concern with saving money than treating veterans.
For example, at Fort Drum, New York, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sent a team to help veterans fill out disability claims but the practice was stopped by the Army when the Army thought the payments were getting too high. And in Texas, a VA hospital staff member circulated a memo recommending that PTSD diagnoses be curtailed because it was costing too much money.
A new study by the RAND Corporation estimates that there are today some 300,000 veterans with PTSD or depression. About the same number have or will experience events likely to result in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is simply unprepared to deal with this mental health Tsunami. Worse, the problems are being covered up.
The result of this poor planning, neglect and cover up is that thousands of veterans go untreated and their illnesses play out in divorce, spouse abuse, suicide and homelessness. It is estimated that some 150-200,000 veterans sleep on the streets every night, including the streets of Denver. Meanwhile the VA is denying access to its hospitals and nursing homes to non-partisan voter registration groups despite federal law allowing it. So those who fought for the freedom of others are denied one of the most important freedoms we have. And there is no outrage.
There will be an election this fall that may determine whether this nation honors its debt to our veterans. Senator McCain a veteran, has never asked to serve on a veterans committee during his 26 years in Congress, has a 20-30% voting score according to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization and opposed the new GI Bill of Rights for those who have served since 9/11. Senator Obama, who is not a veteran but had a grandfather who fought in WWII, serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has a 80-90% DAV score and supported the new GI Bill of Rights. The choice seems clear for those who believe in the importance of keeping this nation's sacred trust to its veterans.