Today is Vietnam Veterans Day, marking the 44th anniversary of the day the last U.S. troops departed Vietnam. But for some Vietnam veterans, war followed them home. The disrespect and animosity that many of those veterans faced upon their return was a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. Four decades later, Americans have learned to separate their dislike of a war from the warriors sent to fight it – a lesson learned on the backs of our Vietnam veterans. Today, most Americans are supportive and appreciative of the current generation of veterans; but, with less than one percent of the population serving in uniform over the past 18 years of war, they don’t really know them.
There are marked differences as well as great similarities between the Vietnam and Post 9/11 wars. The biggest difference: Vietnam was fought by a conscripted force representing a broad cross-section of America, while the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been fought by an all-volunteer force. The unpopularity of the draft fueled the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, which ultimately resulted in President Johnson choosing not to run for another term in the White House. A more important consequence, with devastating impact, was the ugly treatment of returning service members by the American public, and the paucity of services available to help them heal. Now, even those who oppose the war recognize that the military is under civilian control and that our troops are bound by law to execute the orders of the Commander-in-Chief.
It is important to recognize that then, as now, the full impact of war is not limited to physical injuries. In WWI we dealt with “shell shock” which became “combat fatigue” in WWII and beyond. As often as not, fellow soldiers and leaders inwardly, if not outwardly, viewed the victims of these syndromes as cowards rather than wounded by war. This stigma, along with a lack of mental health support and social services, resulted in far too many of our Vietnam veterans falling through the cracks.
While the majority of veterans – regardless of generation - are able to successfully transition back into civilian life, hundreds of thousands of post 9/11 veterans are struggling with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the “invisible wounds” of war. The good news is that we have a better understanding of PTS as a real mental injury with treatment protocols. The bad news is that, like mental health issues in the general population, it still carries a stigma due largely to outright ignorance.
These veterans do not struggle alone. We now have an entire generation of military families that know nothing but war. Over two million children have experienced a parent’s deployment since 9/11, and an estimated 2/3 of them experience emotional or behavioral difficulties. Recent studies show that military-connected children are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their civilian counterparts.
An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide every day. And, on any given night, over 57,000 veterans are homeless. In both cases, the majority of these are older veterans. Vietnam veterans have been incredibly supportive of the current generation of returning warriors, vowing that, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Our veteran population numbers around 20 million, but less than half of them are eligible for Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. The Departments of Defense and the VA spend billions of dollars a year to provide support, and there are over 40,000 non-profit organizations dedicated to serving troops, veterans and families. The corporate sector has also responded by creating veteran hiring initiatives across the country. And still, too many veterans and families are struggling to find the support and opportunities they need.
How do we do better?
First, we must hold the VA and government at all levels accountable, and demand an all-hands-on-deck effort to fix systemic problems and eliminate backlogs. How, for example, can we not expect our disabled veterans to have severe financial problems when it can take more than a year to approve an application and begin to pay earned benefits? A simple fix here might be to have an expedited process (thirty days or less) to approve and start paying benefits. Subsequently, claims could be reviewed through an in-depth audit process - similar to the income tax refund standard practice.
And if VA medical treatment facilities do not have sufficient capacity or are not within a reasonable distance, then why not streamline the new “Choice” provisions to allow for the immediate use of outside care providers?
Second, we need to break down the barriers that inhibit public-private partnerships in fulfilling needs. This is particularly important given that the VA cares for some veterans, but not for their family members – many of whom are dealing with their own mental health issues. There are more than a million post 9/11 caregivers supporting injured veterans and over five million veteran caregivers from previous generations. While the VA has established some excellent caregiver support programs, they are limited to less than one-half of one percent of P-post 9/11 caregivers, and not accessible for pre 9/11 generations at all. The DoD struggles to inform departing service members and families of the thousands of community-based and national non-profits that exist solely to help them. This is partially out of concern that they must not appear to “endorse” any one private organization. An effective and better-defined public-private partnership policy could readily provide a workable approach to address this problem.
Third, the non-profit support sector needs to improve its own collective effectiveness by learning to look beyond their own individual organizations. The burden today is on the military, veteran or family member to find the right organization(s), one at a time, to provide the help they need. Collaboration among and between these organizations can be a “force multiplier” that works both for the organizations, and for their clients.
Vietnam gave us a model of how not to treat our returning veterans. If we properly apply the lessons we should have learned from that experience, we can provide all of our nation’s veterans with the support they have earned through their service – and that would be a true welcome home.
Major General Alan Salisbury, USA (R) is a Vietnam veteran, co-founder, and Chairman of the Code of Support Foundation. Kristina Kaufmann, an 11-year Army wife in the post 9/11 era, is co-founder and Executive Director of the Code of Support Foundation.