I was raised to stand for the National Anthem, salute Old Glory, and love the United States for being the exceptional nation that it is, the beacon on the hill for every country in the world to emulate. So, as a young child, being raised as a patriotic American, my dad would take the family to the Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day) Parade on November 11th to celebrate and honor our nation’s veterans and the Decoration Day (Memorial Day) Parade on the last Monday in May to recognize and honor the supreme sacrifice of our fallen veterans. As an Army Gulf War combat veteran and retiree, I have raised my children to honor and value these same traditions.
This last Veteran’s Day, my family and I attended the Veteran’s Day Parade in my hometown. I watched in awe as the different organizations marched by in their respective uniforms in perfect step; Old Glory at the front and center of the formation. My family and I stood. I came to the position of attention, removed my baseball cap and placed it over my heart as Old Glory passed by radiant in the late morning sun. My heart swelled with pride and admiration for these young patriots for taking the time to honor this great nation’s veterans.
Just back from a long deployment to Afghanistan, soldiers from the local Army National Guard Units, Color Guard out front, dressed to the right, and in step marched by. Again, I stood, came to the position of attention, removed my baseball cap, and placed it over my heart. I couldn’t help but notice how young these soldiers were, they looked younger than my oldest son, as they passed by; our nation’s finest – physically, mentally and morally. Again, I was overwhelmed with feelings of pride and patriotism as they moved smartly by.
A couple of state and national commanders from the various VSOs rode by in their Cadillacs, Mercedes, and Lincolns. Placards attached to the various automobiles identified them by name and VSO affiliation. Of course, the respective Color Guard from each VSO preceded the national commanders. I stood, assumed the position of attention, removed my baseball cap and placed it over my heart. As the Color Guards passed by, I became aware of the glaring dichotomy in age between the National Guard soldiers and the VSO Color Guards and commanders. Where were the VSOs young guys? Why wasn’t the younger veteran population represented? And then the answer became painfully obvious – there were no young veterans in these various VSOs; no twenty-two year olds, no thirty-five year olds, no Gulf War Veterans, and certainly no Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America were represented.
I’ve read the news reports and articles about the various Veteran Service Organizations participating in parades, or putting American Flags in the many National Cemeteries across the country. While these symbolic gestures are important and the VSOs should be doing these events, I wondered what the VSOs were doing between the holidays? I’m not talking about the people who work the National Headquarters and stay busy in Washington DC; I’m asking those individual Veterans who drink cheap beer in those dark, smoke filled bars and relive their glory days in Viet Nam – What are YOU doing? What is your post’s community out-reach plan? And most importantly, what actions are you and your post taking to reach out to those young combat veterans? Twenty-two each and every day are delving into the deepest and darkest depths of depression, hopelessness, and anxiety and making a conscious decision to end their lives.
After looking at your calendar of events, it appears to me that “Bingo Night” and an occasional spaghetti dinner are the extent of any kind social interaction with your community. What do you do in between the holidays in your communities? What are you doing to combat Veteran unemployment? How about volunteering or visiting Veterans homes? Anything like that? What are you doing in your community to reach veterans who need mental health counseling and mentorship? Have you visited a National Guard or Reserve Unit during their monthly week-end drill and offered your guidance, expertise, and mentorship – or a lead on a job? Have you invited any of these soldiers to a spaghetti dinner with the sole purpose of reaching out to them and their families? These are the same soldiers that serve our community, state, and nation and live in our communities. And these are the same soldiers committing suicide at an epidemic rate every day in our community. These soldiers are attempting to deal with the same issues you faced when you came back from the Nam – rampant unemployment, an unresponsive VA staffed by apathetic, or worse yet, unqualified personnel, depression, PTSD, homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, a community that offers their gratitude with, “Thank you for your service,” so that they can walk away and feel good about themselves. None of them know the hell you are experiencing every single day, and most probably wouldn’t care anyway.
The VSO’s are great at symbolic gestures like participating in parades but what are they really doing to support Veterans? Before we all agree and say “nothing” I believe there are a few, very few individual posts actually doing some kind of outreach. If you belong to one of these posts, congratulations you are part of the solution. If not, you have a great deal of work to do.
As members of the post stay hunkered down and drinking in their windowless bar, younger non-member veterans continue to commit suicide at a higher rate than any time in history. The female veterans you have turned away have a higher homeless and suicide rate than their male counterparts. That female veteran you turned away or ignored also has a higher unemployment rate than male veterans.
When I look at the VSO’s and the people who work in Washington DC, I see a mix good people wanting to do the right thing and people who aren’t doing much of anything. VSO’s are as political as any other lobbyist group and none of them want to lose their seat at the table. They want to continue to the same old way of doing business. Rather and upset the political elite, they just go with it adjusting quickly to the ebb and flow of changing political tides. There is no question that VSOs have done a lot of good, But the flip side of that coin is that they also developed chummy relationship with VA and political elite for the sake of political expediency, and mired in the same apathetic attitude.
Your old ways of “business as usual” are not working, nor are they effective any longer. Take a good, long, objective look at your post. Help fix the glaring deficiencies in Veteran and community outreach. The answer will be staring your right in the face if you can see it.