Waging War on Veteran Abandonment

In my last post, Well-being, Hope … and the Role Community,” I delved into the idea of community being an avenue for the pursuit of self-actualization and cerebral development. That post was just the last of many coming to the same conclusion; your community can be a prescription for many of society’s ailments. And nowhere can that be more true and the need greater than for our military veterans.

Young men and women, both from America and abroad, serve their country through deployments in difficult and dangerous situations. And this is one area where government must address their needs once they come home. Needless to say however, this hasn’t happened for at least forty years since Vietnam, especially here in the United States.

While living in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to volunteer in cleanup and outreach programs at Skid Row, the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States. A good portion of these were veterans, veterans with deep-seated problems of addiction and mental illness often a direct result of military deployment.

I also spent time during a nomadic exploration of my own living in campgrounds where many of my surrogated family members were veterans whose lives revolved around access to medical care at a VA clinic. Their well-being was dependent upon the operability of their car or truck, and whether they could stretch their monthly disability benefit check and their food bank rations to make it through the month.

“Bo”

One veteran in particular who stood out was Bo. Bo was a Silver Star recipient, a Vietnam veteran. He was credited for single-handedly saving his detail from a Vietcong assault. In the process he had to kill his commanding officer who froze in the cloud of battle jeopardizing his entire command. It’s not a story I would have normally believed if I hadn’t seen the citation myself. 

Also, Boo was dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, most likely a product of his exposure to Agent Orange. His daily ‘med’ routine consisted of over twenty pills. 

Every morning we woke up at about 5:00 am and sat around the campfire. While I walked down to the highway to buy a copy of The Los Angeles Times, Bo made coffee. We’d sit, drink our coffee, occasionally commenting on the plight of world – and argue some about whether the Twins were going to beat the Angeles in their upcoming MLB series. We were like a married couple who had been together for decades, yet had just met days earlier. Those were two of the most memorable weeks I’ve ever spent. During this time my emotions vacillated between the love of an adopted brother and the disdain of my country’s actions that could poison and discard a hero like Bo.

After two weeks and our maximum stay up … we parted ways, Bo off to the VA in Oxnard, and I back to Los Angeles in search of the next campground. I doubt Bo is still with us. I miss him.

Homeless veteran
Homeless veteran
Cardboard Signs, Spare Change and Government Ineptitude

You can hardly get off a freeway in most any city in the United States without seeing a veteran holding a cardboard sign asking for spare change. You can’t walk the sidewalks of our downtowns without seeing the physical and mental deterioration of our nation’s heroes. If these blatant examples of government neglect and outright ineptitude aren’t enough to get the clowns in Washington D.C. to put their petty narcissism and misplaced party allegiance aside to do their job … nothing will.

Much of the attention, and rightly so, has been on the federal government’s role in veteran assistance. National media attention and congressional outrage forced high level resignations and supposed reforms at the Veterans Administration. Recent reports reveal little progress however. As an example; in Montana where I live; the Veteran Administration had 5,000 unscheduled medical appointment requests; with 2600 of them being over 90 days old. And I’m sure that other states aren’t witnessing a whole lot better results. In fact, in 2014 the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Knight Foundation found that the average wait time to access benefits was 562 days among 1,791 respondents.

The problem is so intrenched that after two years of recognized incompetence, even setting up an automated appointment system is beyond them. The ludicrous example of this case was brought to light in Army veteran Dennis Magnasco‘s viral video showing him failing in being able to set up a simple appointment. Magnasco’s experience prompted his boss, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) to co-sponsor a bill in Congress. His bill would require the VA to run an 18-month pilot program that lets veterans in certain networks use an app on their phone to schedule or cancel VA appointments themselves. Why in this day of Uber and its many clones that enable anyone to get anything delivered to their doorstep, can the VA not get a simple appointment system operational without Congressional action (which is no small feat in itself) … is beyond my comprehension. 

We can scream about needed reform all we want. And even if we get acknowledgement, implementation is another issue. I think its safe to say alternatives beyond government are needed; otherwise the cardboard signs on our off-ramps will only multiple with those holding them needing a lot more than just spare change.

Now is the time for the people to step up and take control. Absolving ourselves by blaming government only contributes to the problem. The veteran crisis is only emblematic of an overall national attitude. Reliance on higher authorities has created a nation deprived of personal community resourcefulness. And it shouldn’t take this to put it front and center.

Of course there are non-profits that provide needed support, but it’s nowhere near enough. However well-intended, even these can fall victim to bureaucratic hierarchical mess; witness the latest controversy over the actions of the Wounded Warriors. Plus the issues our veterans face are multifold, overlapping in ways that no single purpose organization can address with any real degree of effectiveness. Our veterans need more than support groups and organizations.

Searching for Structure and Cohesion

For those who have never been in the military, myself included, I assumed the problems most veterans encounter are trying to forget what they went through. But after spending time with many of them, there may be a lot more to it than that. In fact, the adjustment many veterans face is not trying to forget, but rather wanting the experience back. The military provides a social support environment that many veterans had never had … and they miss it. When they return, life outside the military is a mishmash of uncertainty. Family and friends they come back to, even spouses, often don’t provide that same uncontested intimacy.

“And then you exit the service. No more intrusive surprise health and welfare inspections. No more grueling runs and setting your speed to the slowest member of your group. No more morning formations. No more of the countless bureaucratic irritations of military life. Paradise, right?

Actually, for many of us, no. Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone is that strong sense of social security. Gone is the sense that, wherever you go, you know where you fit. Gone are the familiar cultural norms. Gone are your friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs. Mike Stajura “Zocalo”

Much attention, at least lip service, is centered on helping veterans find jobs when they return. While this is definitely a noble cause, it falls well short of replacing the community they left behind during military deployment.

They need to know that their communities, where they came from, where they are and where they want to go – will be inclusive of them and be tolerant of the effect their experiences have had on them. They need to know there will be a community, not in words … but in actions.

In the past we had neighborhoods and the ‘Middle Ring.’ Who you were didn’t really matter as long as you were a neighbor. Politics and other points of disagreement paled in comparison to the cohesiveness of being neighbors. Now “being neighbors” are just words … not actions. This ‘Middle Ring’ of having proximity be our bond is what we need back. The first three posts in this series outline this. We need to rebuild the foundation of what a community is for it work for us, and especially for our veterans.

Hope and Role of Community

Rather than just focus on problems, we need to create communities that create opportunity and hope; hope for all its residents including veterans. And as I explained in my last post, “Well-being, Hope … and the Role of Community,” hope entails more than just a job for “hard-working folk.” It means providing a platform for civic and neighborhood engagement. As long as one has engagement and hope, they can look at their journey as significant and worth living to its fullest. And when these veterans, like anyone else, live their life to the fullest they will be active contributors to the community. Their contribution will then not only benefit them but also those around them. This feeling of knowing that they’re helping out can be the best support they could get. It’s a synergistic circular set of connections. And when the circle breaks down and the parts of it are put in silos, unconnected with each other … the participant will suffer.

TechShop - San Francisco
TechShop – San Francisco

We need to think out the box. Dale Hartz and his cohorts at Better Futures, a Ohio based non-profit, help high functioning homeless people build B Corporation businesses. No doubt, many of their clients are veterans … veterans who before then had little hope. Better Futures is just one example of creative thinking in building community by using engagement and hope for those society often discards. Imagine a community that creates an environment for commercial drone development and application.

Another is my idea of the ‘Kernel.’ The ‘Kernel is a cross-generational makerspace coworking template. Young and old alike can combine talents and in one place mentor each other. Veterans can use the skills they acquired in the military in conjunction with the skills others bring to the table from the business world or even in retirement to realize entrepreneurial dreams.

We also need to give veterans a chance to continue to give back. Their lives have been all about giving in the military. To rip that away from them is counterproductive. We need to create programs that not only help them … but also create opportunities that enable them to help others. Give veterans responsibility and watch what happens … for everyone.

“Veterans aren’t looking for a handout, and they certainly don’t want to be pitied. If civilian life could offer Veterans more of the virtues of military life—accountability, cohesion, and a sense of purpose—I suspect you’d hear much less about the “problems” Veterans face and much more about the achievements that come from harnessing such vast energy, discipline, and public spirit.” – Mike Stajura

What is it going to take to take back our futures and especially those of our heroes? What is it going to take to build back our communities to be the support structures and safety nets we all need?

And what is it going to take to realize the people who can help us the most don’t work in Washington D.C. or any other government building … they’re here right here – right next to us.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

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2 thoughts on “Waging War on Veteran Abandonment

  1. Awesome posts, Clay. I’ve just retired from teaching after 33 years and am mobilizing for good. Your blog IS fresh air. Keep on, keepin’ on.

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