Mistreatment of Veterans

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Oct 1, 2014 No Comments ›› blackexaminer

I have a friend who is in a life and death struggle in a Veteran Affairs (VA) hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. In May, 2013, John Brookins, a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran suffered a stroke; rendering him partially paralyzed, unable to gather his thoughts, and incapable of speaking coherently.  After his condition had stabilized, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility.  While there, he developed bed sores so painful that he screamed in agony whenever the staff simply touched his body. For over a month, his family persistently called the hospital, and demanded that he be properly treated for the bed sores. The bed sores by then ulcerated. In February, 2014 his condition markedly deteriorated, and the prognosis for recovery is not optimistic.  John needlessly suffered unbearable pain for months, and negligence on the part of the VA hospital may hasten his death; one that could have been prevented. His dignity and possibly his life were taken away.

Brookins’ situation is not unique. CNN reported in November, 2013 that veterans in six VA hospitals died because their cancers were not detected in time due to scheduling delays for colonoscopy procedures. They were among the 21 avoidable deaths throughout the country in 2013. “As we dig through the medical centers,” said the reporter, “we find that a number of deaths could have easily been prevented; it’s inexcusable.” 

If the government gave a damn about servicemen and women as its propaganda claims, it would treat veterans a hell of a lot better than it does. This is especially true for wounded Afghanistan and Iraq veterans returning home for medical treatment where the provision of healthcare is deteriorating rather than improving. The historically embattled VA’s healthcare system dangerously under-served nearly seven million and counting veterans who rely on the government to help them get well. Nearly 2.5 million American soldiers returned home from the Iraq war and hundreds of thousands more will come back from Afghanistan in the next few years; with higher rates of injury after multiple deployments, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Economic hardship is also a serious problem for veterans. Obtaining approval for their disability claims is the first obstacle they encounter. In November, 2013, the VA had a backlog of 711,775 new and reopened claims for benefits. Pathetically, this is a positive development since earlier that year the backlog of claims stood at nearly one million.  The number of claims being appealed by veterans who disagree with the VA’s decisions is also troubling. According to Joe Moore, an attorney who specializes in disability appeals, “Veterans are waiting five years or more” for appeal claims to be heard. “No veteran should ever face stacks of medical bills, eviction, or other problems because VA let the veteran’s disability claim appeal gather dust for five years.”  Rep. Jeffrey Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee believes there is a “culture of complacency” in VA hospitals and clinics, adding, “Unfortunately the consequences are as serious as life and death for our veterans.”

In 2009, The Obama administration promised “to lead a massive transformation of the VA into a high-performing In 2009, the Obama administration promised “to lead a massive transformation of the VA into a high-performing 21 st century organization that can better serve Veterans.” 4 Six years later, the backlog remains gridlocked, and the claims process is still broken. To be fair, Obama’s promise was no different than every other president who failed to keep his pledge to improve the VA since its establishment in 1930.

Tragically, veterans’ problems don’t end once they are in the system. Homelessness among veterans is a widespread crisis the government has failed to adequately address. An alarming number of veterans who served in war zones now live on the streets, under bridges, in abandoned houses, cars, encampments, and shelters.  Due in part to high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, physical injuries and disabilities, one in four homeless Americans are veterans; an astonishing 11 percent of the U.S. population. The typical homeless veteran is more likely to be white with a poor employment history, mental and substance abuse problems and a weak social support system. These aspects exacerbate social isolation, and makes it more difficult for them to find employment and reintegrate into civilian life. Despite successive administrations’ lip-service that the elimination of veteran homelessness was a high priority, few tangible results have been achieved.

Instead of delivering much needed services for the veterans, the VA opted to provide benefits to private entities. A good case in point is the VA’s misuse of property that was supposed to be used to house and help homeless veterans who were too disabled to seek outpatient services. Instead of using it for its intended purpose, the VA leased a sprawling 387-acre West Los Angeles campus to UCLA to build a baseball stadium and a private school constructed an athletic complex on 20 acres of the property. Marriott hotels laundry service for cleaning linen was located on campus; a soccer club used it for practices and games; and to Twentieth Century Fox Television built a warehouse to store its movie sets.

A class action suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California contending that the VA neglected to provide sufficient care and housing. The land that was donated 125 years ago for the sole purpose of housing veterans, no longer house anyone. The dormitories have been vacant since the 1970s. U.S. District Judge S. James Otero ruled that the leasing of the land for purposes “totally divorced from the provision of healthcare” was an abuse of the VA’s discretion.  The judge rejected the Obama administration’s defense that leasing the property somehow benefited veterans by producing revenue for health care services. A Justice Department spokesman declined to say whether the ruling would be appealed.

The leasing of property was particularly egregious considering Los Angeles County, California has 6,300 homeless veterans; the most in the country.  Despite 10 years of protests, the buildings on campus remain underutilized. For years, homeless veterans slept on the sidewalks in front of the campus. “Those who served this nation in our time of need,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s chief counsel that brought the case, “the VA is going to have to serve them in their time of need…the ruling will return the campus to its proper purpose.”

Among veterans, it cannot be seriously argued that military service in war zones is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. Any assertion that the government is meeting its obligation to care for its veterans who have selflessly sacrificed themselves of their country is meritless.  If it were true, veteran homelessness would not be a crisis in America today. According to Veterans Today, the government’s refusal “to provide adequate housing assistance to all homeless veterans is the most egregious betrayal of these homeless veterans by the government. They had been not homeless before they joined the military, and they should not be left homeless now. This is not only appalling, it is also disgraceful. The practice is not only gross injustice; it is also betrayal by the government.” 7

The government can solve the tragedy of homelessness nationwide by following Utah’s progressive and benevolent program that in eight years reduced homelessness by 78 percent, and anticipates ending it by 2015. Utah estimated that it annually paid $16,670 per person for Emergency Room visits and stints in jail for homeless people compared to about $11,000 to provide them with an apartment and minimal social service support.  It is a fiscal no brainer for state to give the homeless apartments with no conditions and a caseworker to help them become self-sufficient. Even if they fail, they still get to keep the apartment. The program’s success has prompted other states to follow Utah’s lead.

The Federal Government should also adopt this homeless program for the poor and veterans not only because it makes good fiscal sense, but more importantly demonstrates compassion for the nation’s impoverished. Moreover, any contention that it is a betrayal and travesty of justice for the government to abandon its returning soldiers entirely misses the point.  It was never its intent in the first place. Aside from empty platitudes, it seems that since the end of WWII, the government felt less obligated to provide adequate assistance to veterans after they separated from the service.  Once out, they have to fend for themselves. The situation is destined to get worse due to pure, unadulterated greed. Under pressure from big business and the super-rich, politicians have steadily defunded entitlement programs that benefit the poor and veterans.

“The United States has the most advanced weaponry in existence, dominates the entire world, has the world’s largest economy, spends the largest portion of its annual budget on military defense, has fought the greatest number of wars in history; and war costs a lot of money… Therefore, for this country to be unable or unwilling to adequately care for homeless veterans, who fought these wars, is not only a shame and a travesty of justice, it is also the ultimate betrayal of the veterans by our government.”

The question becomes whether total political, financial and cultural dominance over the world is a worthy cause for sacrificing our soldiers and killing tens of thousands of innocents in far off places who pose no threat to American security.  If the answer is no, then we should resist government and corporate media propaganda that war, especially the indefinite “war on terror,” is necessary to keep America safe.

The best way to honor our troops is to keep them home in the first place.  If they are sent off to war and wounded, deliver adequate physical and psychological care and attention when they return. Better still, rebel against the military industrial complex by refusing to enlist to serve as fodder for the war machine.

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