Iraq, Afghanistan change the face of Veterans Day
By: Juana Summers
November 11, 2013 05:05 AM EST
Veterans Day in America is traditionally a time to look back, but the new generation of veterans wants to remind people the country also must look forward.
As they return home after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, younger veterans argue the holiday can’t just be about wreaths on gravestones at national cemeteries, parades or celebrations in the basement at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post. They say Veterans Day must be not only about aged veterans in wheelchairs but about men and women in their 20s and 30s, some of whom returned from combat marked by deep wounds — many of which are invisible.
“When people say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I appreciate that. But you can do more than just that,” said Derek Bennett, an Iraq War veteran and chief of staff for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
For IAVA, “more” means flipping a traditional Veterans Day on its head and offering tangible benefits, not just a slap on the back or a cold beer. This year, the group is organizing more than 100 events across the United States to push its message.
“They’re all different flavors,” Bennett said. “It is a little bit different than we’ve done it in the past. It’s more than just a parade.”
Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, said the huge numbers of post-Sept. 11 service members means the “conversation has changed” about what it means to be a veteran.
“Today’s military looks different. The way we talk about the military is different,” she said. “Even five, six years ago we weren’t really talking about women and men. We were still talking about ‘our boys’ coming home from war, ‘our men’ coming back from war. That language really has changed — and that’s phenomenal.”
The challenges of how to serve a generation of veterans after the nation’s freshest wars are facing Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs simultaneously: As a changing of the guard unfolds in the population of former service members, how should Washington serve the needs of the veterans of past conflicts with an eye toward the future?
The VA has its work cut out. Veterans are waiting too long for VA officials to handle their claims, critics say, pointing out that the agency seems only marginally interested in trying to repair its weathered public image.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said his agency is doing its best and has reduced its backlog of disability claims pending for more than 125 days down by more than a third since March.
The troubles at the VA aren’t surprising or even fully its fault: The many troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan added a new burden to a system already strained by an increased number of Vietnam War-era veterans eligible for new care. But Shinseki said the department is on track to eradicate the backlog completely in 2015.
“This trend line is in the right direction. We’ve got to keep it going that way,” Shinseki told a group of reporters in Washington, according to a Reuters report. “I’m not dusting my hands off and saying this is a done deal.”
One of the most important jobs involves making room for women, Bhagwati said, noting that there is still a “brass ceiling” in the services. And as the military is opening even some of the oldest male-only areas of service to women, including Navy submarines and Army artillery units, the VA is not keeping pace, she said — especially in helping veterans who’ve been victims of sexual assault.
SWAN recently released a report slamming the department for what Bhagwati described as the “unnecessarily grueling, humiliating, painful and exhausting” process of seeking disability compensation as a result of military sexual trauma. Advocates hope the public doesn’t lose sight of these and other important storylines.
“I worry about when we draw down completely from Afghanistan because claims and benefits are not a sexy story. We’re talking about paperwork at the end of the day,” she said, but added, “This story about paperwork is so real in the lives of veterans. It makes a difference as to whether somebody might attempt suicide or not.”
The adjustment problem isn’t just with the Pentagon and the VA, Bhagwati said. The veterans service organizations that play such a major role in American life, including VFW and the American Legion, also need to accept that today’s population is different.
“The veterans community still has work to do to really welcome women in the same way,” she said. “There’s still this legacy of mainstream veterans organizations marginalizing women, even in the younger organizations. There’s a palpable sense that we still have to prove ourselves as women veterans, that sometimes you still don’t belong and you’re still, oftentimes in a large group of veterans. You will be considered somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter or somebody’s mother rather than a woman veteran.”
Bottom line: The troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan want Veterans Day to also be about them from now on.
“Our typical veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan is somewhere between the ages of 28 and 34,” said IAVA’s Bennett. “So the needs of someone in that age range are going to be fundamentally very different than our predecessors. That’s just a function of aging. … If you said ‘veteran’ to me 15 years ago, before these wars started, I would think of my grandfather,” he said.
“Vets are young and diverse, and I think that we have a common mental image of sort of the more elderly person,” Bennett added.
Nowhere is the need for a paradigm shift more apparent than at the VA suicide prevention hotline in Canandaigua, N.Y. While there are few reliable data for suicide by veterans, the VA estimates that suicide rates among former soldiers is on the rise and has reached an estimated 22 a day.
Earlier this year, an IAVA survey estimated that 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have contemplated suicide.
On a typical day at the hotline, responders handle 1,000 calls from from across the country, supporting veterans and their families. Established in 2007, the hotline recently accepted its millionth call, said Caitlin Thompson, deputy director of suicide prevention for the Veterans Health Administration.
The goal is that no call goes unanswered.
“I don’t want veterans waiting. There’s no such thing as being put on hold at the crisis line when you call,” said Robert Griffo, one of the responders at the Veterans Crisis Line.
Some callers just want someone to talk to while others are threatening to imminently take their own life.
“The most important thing to do out of the gate is to let them know that you’re there, that you care, that you want to do what you can for them in the moment to help them today,” said Maureen McHenry, who also works as a responder there.
As demand has grown for the service and the numbers of veterans continues to grow, VA is looking for more responders to staff the phones — as many as 60 to add to the current staff of 200.
“The most important thing we do with veterans is we pay attention to them; we listen to them. They need to be heard,” Griffo said. “When we establish that relationship, we’re telling that vet that the only thing that matters is you and me on this phone — nothing else. A bomb can go off next to my cubicle; I’m still focused on you. You matter to me right now. And when that message gets across, the veteran is more willing to open up, and we can get some things done.”