There is nothing new about this story, and it isn't one that is easy to read. And, for a country that is hooked on novelty, it is even harder to get down, but, on a holiday designed to pay tribute to those who serve this country in times of war, we owe it to those who return from battle to take a hard look at how best we may serve them.
As of this month, according to the Veterans Administration's own Web site, about one-third of the adult homeless population has been in the armed forces. Current population estimates are that, on any given night, as many as 154,000 veterans, of both genders, are homeless, and possibly twice as many experience homelessness during the year.
97% of homeless veterans are male; the vast majority of whom are single. Homeless vets tend to be older, and far more educated than their civilian counterparts. 45% are said to suffer from some form of "mental illness," and more than half are African-American or Hispanic.
Of those veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as reported by Aaron Glantz more than a year ago, those who return from battle with some kind of physical, or psychological disability, often fall prey to the Department of Veterans Affairs which victimizes them further by delaying their claims often for months, and sometimes for years.
Somewhere around 300,000 returning wounded soldiers have filed for disability benefits, and have waited for as long as two years to find out if they've been approved. Denial of these benefits have led to homelessness.
Those whose claims have been thrown out, and who appeal, often have to wait an average of five years for a response.
In the first half of 2008 alone, more than 1,100 vets died before hearing if their claims were approved. And, since the onset of the Iraq War seven years ago, the number of veterans filing for disability has nearly doubled.
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Those who return from war with what the VA simply calls "mental illness," but what we now know to be Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, must first prove that their illness is service-related in order to have their treatment covered by the VA.
Any suggestion that the Office of Veterans Affairs use the IRS as a pardigm for how to handle claims was dismissed as unworkable by VA upper managment.
Then, there are those who don't return at all. The Army's suicide rate has reached record levels in the past year alone. The number of suicides in the military has increased more than 60% since the war in Iraq started, and it now surpasses that of the general population. Many attribute the growing problem to a seven year war with as many as three tours of duty, but in a volunteer army, loss of faith in leadership, or disillusionment with the reasons for combat, as well as the absence of an exit strategy, may also be seen as compelling factors.
But, what of those who survive the battlefield only to die by their own hand? Alarmngly, soldiers, age 20-24, who served during the "war on terror," now have the highest suicide rate of all vets. The suicide rate among Iraq war veterans is egregiously high, and growing. And, importantly, suicide is a reflection of hopelessness, as well as a sense of displacement.
When you consider that suicidal ideation is considered a symptom of PTSD, the Office of Veterans Affairs adds insult to injury by setting up road hazards for those who file PTSD disability claims by making them prove that their mental health issues are directly attributable to their service in uniform. This is an outrage, and it is almost as much of an outrage as it is that any member of our armed forces should be released to face the cold pavement of an inner city street.
It's not enough for the VA to acknowledge the problem of homeless vets by simply regurgitating the statistics. The VA, and the Obama administration, must work to address the underlying displacement, and disenfranchisement, as well as work to undo the pervasive angst of returning from a battlefield where one expected to be treated like saviors by people who, in simple point of fact, can't wait for us to go home.
Expanding benefits under the GI Bill, a measure which was rejected roundly by the Bush administration, would be a good start in honoring our returning veterans, but taking the $80 million Defense Secretary Gates was willing to spend on a brand new supermax prison, and using it instead to build low income, federally subsidized, housing for homeless veterans would be a far better way to show what our government thinks of those who have served them honorably. Anything less is an insult to their service.
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