Serving Those Who Served Our Nation
On this Veterans Day, we honor those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, putting their lives on the line to protect their fellow Americans. But we need to do better
U.S. military veterans – including women on an ever-increasing scale – are experiencing an unprecedented health care crisis that has, in turn, triggered staggering rates of poverty, joblessness and homelessness. Today of all days, it is therefore most fitting to ask: Can we solve this national challenge and keep our nation’s commitment to those who have served?
First, what has gone wrong? The answer is rooted in something that has gone very right: medical advances that have vastly increased battlefield survival rates for American service members. In World War II, the survival rate was about 70 percent; today, a soldier serving in Afghanistan has a more than 90 percent chance of survival.
As a result of these impressive advances, more of our service personnel return home from war than ever before. But within their ranks are many who have suffered physical, mental and emotional wounds that diminish or destroy their chances to lead fulfilling lives. The figures are staggering and heartrending.
Since 2000, nearly 6,000 service members have experienced traumatic amputations because of improvised explosive devices and other perils of war. These injuries are often complicated by other life-threatening or life-changing conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, loss of hearing and/or vision, chronic pain syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day. More U.S. military personnel died in suicides last year than were killed by our nation’s enemies.Nearly 1 million active service members have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder since 2000; nearly half of those have been diagnosed with two or more.
Nearly 63,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Many suffer the lingering effects of mental health issues.
An increasing number of those homeless veterans are women. Of the more than 140,000 veterans nationwide who spent at least one night in a shelter in one recent year, nearly 10 percent were women. A large number of these homeless female veterans have been victims of sexual abuse and suffer from PTSD and other mental health disorders. Female veterans identified by the VA as homeless increased more than 140 percent from 2006 to 2010. That number is expected to rise as more women join the military.
As it seeks to overcome this enormous, complex problem, the U.S. government faces two significant obstacles: mounting federal budget constraints and a critical shortage of medical professionals, especially nurses and mental health personnel trained to address veterans’ unique needs. The VA has committed to hiring roughly 2,000 new mental health professionals and peer support counselors.
Philanthropic, nonprofit and other humanitarian enterprises are a critical element of the solution. Many businesses and organizations have answered the call to action by helping veterans find jobs, for instance.
But the growing numbers of veterans who are ill, injured, disabled and homeless need the best possible health care – capable of addressing the physical or underlying mental or emotional issues that can stand in the way of solving housing, employment and personal challenges.
The public, donors, nonprofits and businesses can make a real difference by applying imagination, innovation and, of course, money. One example is the Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program, which we represent. Our center currently supports more than 250 doctoral nursing scholars nationwide – a growing number of whom are pursuing specialized education focused on the health care needs of our veteran population.
But much more needs to be done to help America’s veterans. This Veterans Day, we should reaffirm that nothing is more important, and that we will step up to serve those who have given so much to serve us.
Article As seen in POLITICO
POLITICO Op Ed Article Authors:
Brigadier General (Ret.) William Bester, senior advisor, Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program, 21st Chief of the Army Nurse Corps
Darlene Curley, M.S., RN, is executive director of the Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence