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Vets on Veterans Day – and the Other 364

Brendan Marrocco, a 23-year-old Iraq war veteran from Staten Island, New York, watches as his physical therapist, Luis Garcia, takes off his prothetic legs after practicing walking at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, on May 5, 2010. Marrocco lost his arms and legs to a bomb in Iraq. A year later, he is walking again and has become an inspiration to hundreds of fellow veterans. (Photo: Ruth Fremson / The New York Times) Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, was first proclaimed by President Wilson to honor those Americans who died in World War I; it is still celebrated as Armistice or Remembrance Day in countries that fought on the winning side of the war. In 1954, the national holiday was expanded to honor all US veterans.

Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, was first proclaimed by President Wilson to honor those Americans who died in World War I; it is still celebrated as Armistice or Remembrance Day in countries that fought on the winning side of the war. In 1954, the national holiday was expanded to honor all US veterans.

In the days after Veterans Day, I think of the veterans remembered and honored for a day who are otherwise forgotten and dishonored the rest of the year: those who are homeless; unemployed; struggling against a federal bureaucracy to receive promised health care services and disability payments; caught in the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma; victims of suicide and suicide attempts.

In 2007, the Pentagon admitted that nearly 50,000 US troops who had been deemed medically unfit for combat were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq anyway. Numerous other reports document that mentally ill soldiers were routinely prescribed antidepressants, sedatives, and other psychotropic drugs and returned to combat. In no other US war have so many soldiers served multiple deployments, and the consequence of forcing already severely stressed and ill soldiers back to war is a surge in suicides and suicide attempts. In 2009, CBS did a nationwide study of suicide rates among veterans when they could not get the information from the Veterans Administration (VA). They found that in the year studied, 2004-2005, veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide than nonveterans.

An October 2011 survey of mental health providers (psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers) in the VA found that 70 percent did not have enough staff and space to meet the mental health needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. These are people returning with trauma, brain injuries, drug and alcohol dependency, and suicidal feelings – soldiers in many cases who were sent on multiple deployments because rates of military recruitment for the unpopular wars were low. Forty percent of those medical providers interviewed said they are so booked that they cannot meet the two-week window for an appointment with a new patient. Nearly half reported that patients were being denied care because appointments were not available outside regular office hours.

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200,000 veterans are homeless, for reasons of inadequate employment, low wages, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, and insufficient and inaccessible health care. Veterans have a higher rate of unemployment and homelessness than civilians, and government programs for shelters, transitional and permanent housing, and job training are severely under-resourced. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that the VA serves only about one quarter of homeless veterans. Clearly, the national military budget prioritizes weapons systems and fraudulently expensive military contractors over medical care and life support services for veterans.

Women constitute 14 percent of active-duty soldiers. In Iraq, women constituted 10 percent of the military (nearly 200,000 troops), and were at equal risk of combat injury and PTSD as men, given the nature of the war. Studies of women veterans from past and recent wars [1] confirm that women in the military are raped and sexually harassed at much higher rates than in US civil society. Eleven percent of homeless veterans are women; nearly half of them have been raped by fellow soldiers. The prosecution record of the Department of Defense (DoD) for reported sexual assaults is dismal, and those women who have reported rape contend that the military is more intent on shielding the warrior culture and their male soldiers from scandal than protecting women soldiers from rape. For this reason, most military women (an estimated 80 percent) do not report rape to their commanders.

In 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) sponsored Winter Soldier 2008, an eyewitness account of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by 200 men and women soldiers from those wars. They testified to the military's crimes against its own, including sexual assault and inadequate gear for combat. They spoke of the cold-blooded killing of civilians and the free-fire zones where they were told to shoot at anything that moved. They condemned the suspension of international laws against using excessive force, torture, and abuse, and against destroying hospitals and schools. Many spoke to unburden their haunting guilt about what they had done in war, and, in the case of some women, what had been done to them.

Numerous editorials have supported President Obama's decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of the year because “bringing the troops home will mean that they finally will be out of harm's way,” as one put it. In fact, the reality for many veterans is that war does enduring and sometimes irreparable harm ­- harm that bringing soldiers home does not undo.

Veterans for Peace is a US organization founded in 1985. Made up of male and female US military veterans of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and other conflicts, as well as peacetime veterans, the group works to promote alternatives to war. They state their objective this way: “We draw on our personal experiences and perspectives gained as veterans to raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war – and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives.”

1. Helen Benedict. 2009. “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” Boston: Beacon Press.

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