• For veterans, the battle begins when they come home

    by Donald K. Sanders

    Today, I’d like to provide you with some information about our nation’s veterans that make up 28 percent of the nation’s adult population.

    Our veterans come from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. They live on the plains of Montana, in the high-rises and dumpsters of New York City, and what is left over fills the bunks of our penal system.

    Most WWII vets are in their mid to late 80s and they are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. Seventy is the average age of Korean War vets, and 58 is the average age of Vietnam-era veterans.

    There are about 24 million veterans in the US today. Wartime veterans number around 17 million and about 7 million served in peacetime. The largest segment of the veteran population is Vietnam-era vets. There are 8.4 million Vietnam vets that make up 31.71 percent of the total veteran population.

    California has the largest population of vets, numbering 2,257,130, with Florida coming in second with 1,768,359. New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas have more than one million each.

    While the VA estimates that the proportion of male veterans will continue to decline, the number of female vets is on a steady rise. Women make up just over 6 percent of all veterans. This percentage is expected to increase to 8 percent this year.

    Some 19.5 million vets (81 percent) are white. African Americans make up about 10 percent of the veteran population and Hispanics follow at 1.3 million (5 percent). Other races, including Asian, American Indian and Polynesian, make up about 3 percent of all veterans.

    The unfortunate truth is that the real challenge begins when these service men and women return home and readjust to day-to-day life.

    According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 45 percent of the country’s estimated 131,000 homeless veterans are black. Overall, 42 percent of the nation’s homeless population is African American.

    Of the 7.5 million vets enrolled in the VA health care system, about 5.4 million used VA medical care last year.

    After the Vietnam War ended, reports began to circulate of veterans so depraved from their war experiences that they were inclined to turn to a life of crime to survive post-war civilian life. Estimates of the number of incarcerated Vietnam veterans are as high as one-quarter of the US prison population.

    In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, its veterans, who returned home not as heroes were labeled victims and losers, allegedly afflicted by inner demons manifesting themselves in high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness and suicide.

    That stereotype is often seen in Hollywood movies. In the recent blockbuster “Independence Day,” one of the main characters is a goofy, alcoholic Vietnam veteran who humiliates his children by crop-dusting the wrong fields. The only way he can atone for his failed life and save the world is by committing a final act of fiery suicide.

    An analysis of data from the Department of Defense shows the average age of men killed in Vietnam was 22.8 years.

    Pentagon officials estimated for the first time this year that up to 360,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may have suffered brain injuries. Among them are 45,000 to 90,000 veterans whose symptoms persist and warrant specialized care.

    Ten to twenty percent of returning soldiers have suffered at least a mild concussion. Among them are 3-5 percent with persistent symptoms that require specialists, such as an ophthalmologist to deal with vision problems.

    We have now nearly two million vets of Iraq and Afghanistan and we still haven’t seen the type of mobilization of resources necessary to handle an expected epidemic of veteran suicide. Of the 18 veterans who commit suicide every single day, five are under the care of the VA.

    The VA came under attack by veterans’ groups in April 2008, when internal emails sent by the VA’s head of mental health, Dr. Ira Katz, showed that the VA was attempting to conceal the actual number of veterans that blow their own brains out every single day.

    Of the more than 30,000 total suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans. Last year, the suicide rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99. It has now jumped to 56.77.

    When you see a homeless person walking down the road, the chances are that you are looking at a veteran. If you wonder why prison populations are rising, it’s because alarming numbers of veterans are being sent there to live in cages like an animals, after being arrested for minor drug infractions.

    I, in fact, am one of those veterans. As such, I can handle any crap that is thrown in my face by an uncaring society. It is also true that if it ever gets to the point where I cannot handle such a good life, I can always take the easy way out. Sadly, if the VA has anything to say about it, you, the public, will never know I existed.

      • Judy N

      • September 11, 2011 at 9:01 am
      • Reply

      Don, this is so illuminating, also shocking, and very moving.

    • Don, I am so glad you took the hard way and are still here for us. You have such valuable words and I truly glad you are my friend. Great and needed writing from you today. Thanks for your service.

    • I know you exist… And I’m glad you do.

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