Can there be any greater service to one’s country than signing up to be shot at and possibly die while defending it? It’s always young people who fight our wars, the ones who have their whole lives in front of them, and yet they join the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and National Guard knowing that although they have barely begun to live, they are more likely to die in the near future than you and I.
Although most communities held parades and other events to honor their veterans over the weekend, today is Veterans Day. Here are some facts about those men and women:
- There are 24 million U.S. military veterans
- 2.2 million are women
- More than 10 million are 62 and older
- One World War I veteran is still living, according to the Department of Defense
- The last Civil War veteran (Confederate) died in 1958 at age 112
- The last Civil War widow (Union) died in 2003 at age 93
- 1.7 million troops have served so far in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Nearly 4600 of them have been killed
- More than 32,000 have been injured in those two wars
- 400,000 veterans spent some time each year living on the street, according to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee
- 15 percent of all voters are veterans
[You can find more veteran statistics from major U.S. wars in this fact sheet at the Department of Veterans Affairs website.]
It is obviously difficult to poll soldiers on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan so there are no useful statistics, but self-identified veterans at home, according to exit polls, voted for Senator John McCain by a 54 to 45 percent margin, about the same as the elder vote which was 53 to 45 for McCain.
President-Elect Obama has some important plans to help veterans. During his tenure in Congress, he has been a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee where he learned a lot about the difficulties veterans face. And he campaigned for president with a solid plan to improve conditions for veterans.
There is no doubt that our veterans have been neglected. Of course you remember the Walter Reed Hospital scandal. And the conditions - rodents, mold, peeling paint, broken equipment, months-long waiting times for treatment, substandard care and more – are evident in other Veterans Administration hospitals throughout the country too.
The VA track record on treating post-traumatic stress syndrome in our soldiers is abysmal. One not uncommon story tells of a husband who waited more than two months after applying for help following three suicide attempts. He committed suicide a month after finally seeing a VA psychiatrist who did not follow up when the soldier advised the doctor he had stopped taking his medication.
PTSD is a growing public health problem which often doesn’t show up for years, but no one knows the number of resulting suicides because the VA has not released the statistics and has even gone to lengths to conceal them:
“The issue came to a head recently when an e-mail written by VA’s top mental health doctor came to light. The e-mail read: ‘Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before somebody stumbles on it?’”
- - Army Times, 16 May 2008
None of this is good enough. The least we owe our veterans in the best medical care available for as long as they need it. They put their lives on the line, willing to pay the ultimate price for the rest of us, but I wonder how often we think about that. So go thank a veteran today.