Today is Remembrance Day/Veterans Day/Poppy Day/Armistice Day, depending on where you are; for USians, it is Veterans Day, and an opportunity to honor American veterans.
I come from a family with a long history in the military, on my father’s side. Both of my grandparents were in the Navy during the Second World War, my grandfather later going on to be involved with the Office of Strategic Services in Berlin, and my grandmother working to decode enemy transmissions (she was a very talented mathematician). Several relatives on that side are currently in the military, working in various capacities around the world.
I can’t join the military, or I might well have, but my family associations did lead me to study military issues in college, and the focus of my undergraduate work was American military culture and the history and motivations behind modern warfare. Along the way, I had a lot of opportunities to interact with veterans and active duty military, and I even spent several months working in a Congressional office, handling a lot of issues, but focusing on veterans in particular.
My interactions with veterans among the Congressman’s constituents were humbling and sometimes very saddening. They had chosen this relatively isolated area to settle in for a number of reasons. Many were anti-war, and liked living in a community with other anti-war veterans. Others appreciated the isolation, the quiet, the companionship of friends they had made. Others were returning to their hometown to settle.
But, when they needed services, most of these people had to go to the VA hospital in San Francisco1, which is four hours away. Some lacked cars (or didn’t have reliable cars) and were forced to rely on the charity of others to get to appointments. Naturally, having to drive so far, many were obliged to drive down the night before appointments, staying in hotels in San Francisco to make early appointment times, and as a result, this added considerably to the already hefty expenses of travel. This lack of convenience led some to put off appointments, while others found that when they wanted appointments, they were denied, which is how they ended up in our office, asking for help.
These men and women, ranging widely in age, looked at the green college student with respect and courtesy and called me ma’am and asked so meekly for assistance that it almost made me want to cry. Some had been fighting for benefits for years before finally coming to us. Some felt bitter and betrayed, others had firm faith in the VA system. All of them needed services which the government had promised and had not delivered. They brought in stacks of documentation. Some of them were just glad to have someone to talk to, someone who listened intently and focused on their needs and tried to resolve bureaucratic tangles on their behalf.
It was my task to advocate for them. Knowing virtually nothing about veterans’ issues at the time, I was plunged into the depths of the VA system, and I noticed something very interesting: As soon as I said I was calling on behalf of a Representative, I got the red carpet treatment, and so did my veterans, by extension. I got people in for services they needed, I helped arrange transportation and temporary housing for them, and I followed up with them all and was constantly told about how smoothly everything went after I picked up a phone on their behalf. And I couldn’t help but think that there was something troubling about a system in which you needed the clout of a Congressperson behind you to get services to which you are entitled.
How many more veterans, I wondered, lived in my community silently, not asking for or receiving assistance that was theirs by right? Especially now, with two wars going on, there seems to be a dearth of visibility for veterans in this community. I know that they are here, I see them very occasionally, and sometimes we are shocked into remembering that they are here, as happened recently when an Iraq veteran shot himself and his partner in a murder-suicide.
The needs of disabled veterans are as diverse as disabled veterans themselves. “What can I do?” is not a question which can be answered quickly, or simply. I can say that in our rural community, one of the greatest things people can offer is assistance with transportation to medical appointments. For disabled veterans who cannot drive, a willing driver makes a huge difference, and for those who can drive, a safe ride can still be extremely valuable (as, for example, when a veteran needs to have a medical procedure after which driving is not recommended). There’s a benefit to being a driver, too; I really enjoy driving veterans and talking with them. I also enjoy sitting in companionable silence, too.
Many communities have local organizations of veterans. We have a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, along with several anti-war veterans groups. People who are interested in helping veterans in their communities can talk to these organizations about their needs. Offering to act as a driver or to visit veterans who have requested it at home or in the hospital can be great. For people who can’t engage at that level, donating goods can also be very helpful. Many American veterans are homeless or living in poverty, and outreach services to them are available through local veterans’ organizations; donations of food, bedding, and other necessities are often appreciated, as are cash donations, for those who can afford it.
Not all disabled veterans need or want assistance. For those who do, an advocate or just a friendly voice may be greatly appreciated. The only way you’ll find out is if you ask. One resource available is the VA Voluntary Service program, which offers opportunities to participate at a wide range of abilities.