Working to drop the debt to zero with our veterans

On Sunday, we pay tribute to our veterans, the people who chose to put their lives on hold to fight for our freedom. They are the ones who went toward the battle as others fled. They are the ones who knew there was the risk they could die in battle, but they moved forward anyway.

Veterans Day is this weekend, which means that the tributes that normally take place on one day take place over several days. The Allied Veterans Council will hold its annual ceremony on the day itself, but Shawano Community Middle School and Wolf River Lutheran High School held their events Friday, while many other schools are hosting events on Monday.

It’s a time of red, white and blue everywhere, as we all gather together and say thank you to our veterans, a way to remind them that we care and we appreciate their service.

What about the rest of the year, though? What about those other days when we’re not planning the 21-gun salutes and the pretty speeches? What are we doing to pay back our veterans for all that they’ve given us?

A study published in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs highlighted a startling statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide daily. These men and women survive the battlefields, but they come back home and find it more difficult to re-enter the lives they left behind.

When we hear the statistic alone, it seems like many of our younger military men and women are taking their own lives. However, almost three-fourths of our veterans are over 50, according to a Los Angeles Times report on the study, so many of them have been carrying the traumatic experiences of war for years and have finally reached a breaking point.

Then there are plenty of veterans who are homeless, who have come back from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other battle zones and find no room at the inn, so to speak. According to the Military Times, there were a confirmed 40,000 homeless American veterans in 2017, a steep drop from the 74,000 in 2010 but still a disturbing statistic.

In 2008, there were more than 5.5 million veterans who had some kind of disability, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, and undoubtedly that number has increased in the last decade. Many of them want to continue their service but are unable to due to mental or physical problems. Our VA system is better than it was a few years ago with the scandal at the Tomah VA and others around the country, but it is still struggling to provide the care our veterans need — nay, that they are entitled to.

Many of us see members of the service through a Hollywood lens, where they go off and fight and then come back home to their family to the sound of music and live happily ever after. That’s not the reality, though. We don’t know everything they went through, and the horrors they keep to themselves.

My father served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and there is very little he has told me of his time there. He’s currently getting care through the VA system in Arizona, but his claims of feeling ill and weak have not been addressed, with every doctor visit ending with “You’re fine. See you at your next appointment.”

Then there’s the gunman who killed 11 people at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, this week before taking his own life. The Marine Corps said he was honorably discharged in 2013 and earned a number of medals. Neighbors described him as an introvert who never caused them problems, but yet something snapped and caused him to go on his rampage.

As a society, we put our veterans on a pedestal and watch them admiringly when it comes to Veterans Day, but how many of them are watched and helped the rest of the year? That guy with the dirty and tattered clothes holding a sign and begging for help on the curb, could that be someone who fought for our country and was not repaid by that country for his service? The neighbor with a U.S. Marines flag outside of his home whom you don’t see very much, could he be in need of help, whether it’s physical or psychological?

We’ve recently finished with an election, with many familiar representatives and a few new faces sitting in positions of power, positions that include overseeing health care for veterans. With one voice, we should tell these people that more needs to be done to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. It seems cruel to ask these men and women to survive in a war zone, only to be destroyed when they return home.

As Americans, we love our veterans very much. As a country, we can never repay them for their service, but we need try a little harder to bring the outstanding balance closer to zero.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor of The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.