Today, November 11 is Veterans’ Day a day to remember and honor those who served our country.
Yet now nearly 25% of our veterans are homeless. Over 20 commit suicide every day. They fought grizzly wars for us in Korea and Vietnam and now in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. We no longer have the draft. These brave men and women volunteered to serve our country, many with multiple deployments.
My father was a career Naval Officer who served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II and in Korea. We had health care benefits for life as a career officer. This included me until I turned 21 as it should. I was not on active duty.
Our Veterans Administration began in the 1930’s to care for wounded soldiers from World War I. Our World War II soldiers and sailors returned to ticker tape parades and the GI Bill. There has been no such recognition or reward since.
Today, many Veterans are uninsured. Many are eligible for Medicaid and insurance options under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Yet, half of the nation’s poor Veterans live in one of the 22 states that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A quick over night complete repeal of the ACA , therefore, could have a major impact on many Veterans and will leave many poor Veterans without affordable health insurance options, according to a study published in Health Affairs. Most uninsured Veterans have incomes below the federal poverty level ($33,000 for a family of four) and their access to health care has been through Medicaid and the health insurance exchanges with subsidies.
The study also indicated that the ACA had the potential to reduce coverage and the access gaps for many Veterans.
Health insurance coverage is one issue. Another critical issue is getting prompt and timely care and eliminating the long waiting times and other barriers, such as transportation that exist in some VA locations.
We owe much to our Veterans. One of the things we owe them most is access to health care. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is high among Iraq and Afghanistan Vets, with 20% for those who did not seek treatment and 50% of those who sought treatment through the VA. The rate is 10-30% for Vietnam vets. PTSD is the third most prevalent mental health diagnosis for those who use the VA system. Veterans’ suicide rate is higher than national averages, increasing by 32 percent since 2001, while civilian suicides increased by 23%. The suicide rate for Veterans who do not use VA services is 38.6%. For women it is worse. Their rate of suicide is 4.6% if they used VA services but 98% for those women who did not.
When I lived in postwar Japan we would see bandaged and crippled men dressed in white. They begged by American military bases, by department stores, by Buddhist temples—anywhere many people passed by. They were wounded WWII veterans whose country no longer had the resources to care for many disabled soldiers. You never saw other beggars in Japan. Begging remains a great shame; a dishonor to the family. I had never seen anyone beg before.
Their image remains with me now as I see too many homeless on our streets who have signs asking for food or money or are sleeping under bridges or on abandoned store fronts. Many are our veterans.
We need to support and expand Veteran programs. Our veterans answered duty’s call to defend and preserve our country that now looks the other way for far too many. It may be easy to look away because our homeless veterans are not dressed in white.
Kathleen O’Connor © Nov. 2016
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