I grew up in a military family. Both my grandfathers and great uncle were veterans as is my father and father-in-law. Two of my brothers are also veterans. While I was not personally in military, the experience I had growing up shaped my outlook on the world. My father was in the Army for 23 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Not quite ten years after he left the Army, he started having some cognitive issues at his job. He was only in his early 50s, but he was having difficulty learning new tasks such as new computer programs.
These started to slowly increase in severity until the point he was declared 100% service related disabled in his late 50s. As it turns out, in the early 1980s when we all were stationed in Germany, an accident where his driver flipped their Jeep caused a broken collarbone, compressed discs in his neck, and a likely traumatic brain injury. In the early 1980s, they did not have MRI technology widely available yet, so it was not fully diagnosed at the time. But as we now know, traumatic brain injury can have longstanding effects. He was also deployed to Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War as well.
He had to retire from his regular job at the Union Pacific Railroad and my mother cared for him at home for years before the level of care he required was too great. Imagine someone with advanced dementia in their 80s, but with the body of a tall, still athletic middle aged man in his early 60s. My dad was very intelligent and had a bachelors and masters degree in business from the University of Missouri, but he could hardly talk any more. He prided himself on still being able to jog with his dogs well into his 50s, but by then, he was confined to a wheelchair. He sometimes could not feed himself, so he needed a feeding tube placed. All of us kids had finished college by then, so my dad and my mom should have been active empty nesters in the prime of their lives able to travel where they wanted and enjoy their free time with friends, family, their two dogs, and each other.
Instead we had to leave our proud military father in a run down VA nursing home in rural Nebraska. He had served his country with great pride and yet they didn’t even have a bed long enough to fit his 6 feet 2 inch frame. So when we dropped him off at the VA associated facility that my mom could get him into on short notice, we all left with tears in our eyes.
Perhaps the staff at the facility out there did their best, but he soon came down with a huge range of infections and other emergency medical problems. They transferred him back to Omaha and saved his life. He was able to get into the main VA hospital there permanently. They seem to do a great job there and my mom gets to visit him every day. He doesn’t say much or recognize me any more as of this writing. He’s 67 years old and I have my doubts if he will make his 68th birthday. The worst part is I feel like I haven’t had a father for a decade though as the dementia quickly took his mental faculties.
So I don’t say it lightly when I say that I despise politicians who trot out the veterans falling all over themselves thanking them for their service in one breathe and slashing their benefits with a “sorry, what a shame” smile on their faces in the next breathe. Simply put, they have no issues at all if Veterans Affairs fails. It’s simply not their problem. The better off veterans had additional money and insurance options. The poor and working class vets do not. And yet time and time again, we get into extremely long and drawn out expensive conflicts that we never seem to be able to resolve.
My father at least got to enjoy most of his younger years physically whole with only a few issues until the dementia took hold. Thousands of other young men and women come home not physically or mentally whole. Still thousands more don’t come home at all. Some don’t even have a home. The latest estimates by the VA is that there are around 40,000 or so are homeless on our streets at any given time.
It does not have to be this way. First and foremost, we need to think long and hard about getting into these conflicts in the first place. Then we need to take care of those that did serve. When we make sure programs like the VA are appropriately funded or we shrug our shoulders as we cut their budget, that is a reflection of our values.