Monday, May 26, 2014

Disabled Veterans

It's Memorial Day and I am remembering the vets that make it back from the war but live the rest of their lives with disabilities caused by the war.  And I want to tell a story about a vet I had the opportunity to talk with the other day.

He joined the service soon after high school.  He hoped to make a career of it.  He is a very bright man and had a highly technical job in the service.  I'm not providing any identifying details in order to protect his privacy, so I won't say exactly what he did, but it was something requiring a lot of intelligence and skill.

He'd been in the service for 10 years when it happened.  He was in Iraq.  He was in a vehicle with nine other servicemen when an explosion occurred.  Eight of the 10 people in the vehicle were killed.  He and one other man survived, with serious injuries.

He carries a lot of survivor's guilt, partly because he was initially supposed to sit in a different seat in the vehicle but for some reason ended up switching seats with another guy.  The other guy died.  If he'd been in the seat he was supposed to be in, he would have died, too.  This was 15 years ago and he got all choked up telling me about it.

He received a medical discharge.  He came back to the states with physical injuries, requiring lengthy hospitalization.  He also had (still has) PTSD, although apparently the VA psychiatrist only diagnosed that about a year ago.  How could anyone live through that experience and not have PTSD?  He still thinks about it every day.  He still cries about it.  He still has nightmares.

Despite having severe PTSD and lasting physical disabilities, the VA only finally declared him disabled and awarded him disability pay a year ago.  It took 14 years for him to get disability.  For 18 months of those 14 years, he was homeless, living on the street.

His wife left him shortly after he came home from the war.  She said he wasn't the same man he used to be.  This was not what she signed up for.  Well, gee, I don't think it was what he signed up for, either.

After his wife left and he was disabled and living in extreme poverty, he became depressed.  Well, duh.  Who wouldn't?  He attempted suicide multiple times.  Obviously he was not getting good mental health care - the VA psychiatrist couldn't even figure out that the had PTSD.

This would be a terribly sad story even if the guy wasn't a veteran.  But he is a vet.  He didn't become disabled in an accident.  He wasn't just born this way by some twist of fate.  He became disabled fighting in a war that our government, on behalf of all of us, felt was so important that it was worth risking lives.  He agreed to take that risk, to sacrifice his health and maybe even his life, for other people, and for a principle.

I am a pacifist.  I am opposed to war.  I don't think we ought to be fighting wars.  What if they threw a war and nobody came?  I think we should all refuse to come.

But that is not the society in which we live.  We live in a society in which we send young men and women to war.  To fight for us.

And then when they come home disabled, we don't care for them.  I find that appalling.  I do not support war but I do support the troops that fight for something they believe in.

This guy lost his wife, he suffers pain every day, he is disabled, he has PTSD, and we allowed him to live on the street for 18 months.  Think about that.  In a Midwestern city, in the cold winter, we - this society, which includes all of us - felt it was perfectly OK for him to sleep in a doorway, on cold concrete, in pain, barely able to walk, having nightmares of an explosion that killed eight of his buddies when he did manage to fall asleep for a bit.

How is that OK?  How is it that we can allow that to happen?

It's easy to say well, that's not really my responsibility, it's not that I think it's OK but what am I supposed to do about it?  I don't work for the VA, it's not up to me to decide who gets disability.  What am I supposed to do, anyway?  Invite homeless vets into my home to live?

But really, it is my responsibility.  It's is the responsibility of all of us.

If it's not OK with me, I  need to do something about it.  If I just passively accept it, and allow it to happen, then it must really be all right with me.

What am I going to do about it?  I don't know.  I have no idea what there is to do about it.  But I'm gonna find out.

What about you?  Is it OK with you?  And if it's not, what are you going to do about it?

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