Ah, for rhetoric to meet the truth
Of all we were told in our youth
Where black was so black
That we longed to attack
And white was so white
That we joined for the fight
Because we were the same
Seeking Justice and never fame
Shot on the field of strife
Some lost blood or life
While others lost touch with the world
Their colors forever furled
Invisible wounds so hard to find
In the soldiers we leave behind
Shortly before the recent holidays, I happened upon a gripping scene as I popped into a nearby Stater Brothers supermarket. I saw this moving shadow of a man in a Vietnam War hat and a thin dirty jacket. He was emaciated and frail and literally shaking in the wind. We spoke briefly about Vietnam and I learned that he was riding shotgun on escort convoys leaving Da Nang in 1969. I told him that my year was 1967-1968 and that I was further south in the Mekong Delta; gave him a dollar and went back to my car with this stark reality engraved in my mind: we left this soldier behind. The average wait for VA services is 13 months. If on his own, this veteran will be dead in 13 months. I went home feeling a little empty and guilty about the vagaries of fate. That moment, I found a waterproof bag and loaded it with clean socks a heavy woolen sweater, T-shirts, sundry toilet articles and a flashlight. Returning to the supermarket, I looked for the soldier. He was gone. I kept the bag in the car and returned to Stater Brothers almost daily over the next couple weeks. My description must have been pretty good, because my wife Louise spotted him outside a nearby CVS on one of those days. As she sometimes does, she ordered him to stay put and said that I was looking for him. That day, I had bought orange juice and one banana. The old soldier needed a ride home. We gladly assisted. We put his walker in the trunk and left him at home with the bag of goodies now enhanced with orange juice and one banana. John’s wife Diana met us and explained that John had Agent Orange induced Parkinson’s and had PTSD as well as Alzheimer’s. We promised to return.
On the next day, we did return with food and some additional clothing we bought from a nearby thrift store. We were treated as warmly as cherished family. This provided enough food for Christmas. After another week, we returned with additional food and were invited in, but John was nowhere to be seen. Diana explained that John often wandered, and that is why she wrote a note for him to carry in his wallet. He had shown me that note with his address when we drove him home. There was no money, just a note from his wife so that when lost, he could be returned to that “home.” Diana had confided that they pay $825 per month for this hovel with a space heater and that John’s disability payments had been reduced by $800 per month since he began receiving Social Security about a year earlier. This leaves the couple with about $200 per month for the luxuries of food and hygiene. They now owe the VA $15,000 for ‘overpayment’ as a result of getting Social Security. Nice touch. Diana also commented that they hated to use the kitchen stove since it gave them shocks when they touched it. When Louise and I entered that home, we were stunned to find a third world corner of Riverside, California. Words fail to describe the chaos, grease and grime of this tiny fire-trap. Dante came close: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Our nation left John and now Diana in the hell of no hope.
My clue to hope abandoned came when I told Diana that she had to solve the administrative problems one at a time. To get long-term help, she needs her former husband’s death certificate from San Bernadino County. They need proof of common-law status after living together for 20 years. They need to get John’s divorce papers and his DD 214 (proof of service). This stern advice brought a tear to her eye. Clearly, navigating the tortuous paths of administration is not for the timid but I showed my inexperience as an advisor to the afflicted. Oops, John and Diana don’t think like MBAs.
Why cannot the VA get the money to carry out its mission? The one word answer is “politics.” Will the current ideological House of Representatives allocate sufficient money for the invisible constituency of quiet disabled veterans when it would not willingly allocate money for very visible victims of Super-Storm Sandy? An organization has been working this legal issue for about five years and only this month will learn whether the Supreme Court will hear the case referred by the 9th Federal District Court. Veterans United for Truth has been joined by several additional veterans groups in this effort to force the government to recognize a forgotten cost of war, the human cost. Will this make a difference when we fought two wars without putting either the Afghan War or the 2nd Iraq War on our national budget? Ironically, the folks who cheered lustily for those two wars when VP Cheney stated “Deficits don’t matter” have suddenly gotten religion and want to reduce the deficit on the backs of the same people who fought the wars instead of those who gained power from the policy. As we face language such as “entitlements,” the words of a recent presidential candidate scream in our ears. These are the 47%, even if they fell into this pit through no fault of their own. Now I hear “volunteers” used as a weapon against soldiers with traumatic brain injury and even less visible PTSD. “They volunteered for this duty, why should all Americans pay for it?” Subsidies to corporation-people are good. Entitlements to breathing people are bad. Oh, to be treated as a corporation-person and freed from the bonds of death.
The national answer is simple, really. We are all in this together and if we cannot carry the injured a little further and if we cannot rehabilitate them and if we cannot respect them, then what kind of country are we? The image of commonwealth where we share in the pain as well as the rewards to the greater good is fading. It is being replaced with a cannibalistic frenzy where we feed on the less able and those whom we feel are holding us back. We are leaving our soldiers behind. What happened to compassionate conservatives? What happened to “Christian virtue?” What happened to fair play? What happened to our safety net? Where did our humanity go? We have glorified our corporations with the trappings of humans where money is free speech and unlimited political force, but we cannot respect those real people whom have given fully and freely until they can give no more and need to be “takers” in our commonwealth. The scales tip still further, because we enshrine the practice of subsidies for those whom have already been rewarded richly through the highest corporate profits on record.
John and Diana are real and they are in pain and they need help. It is not a mystery and predestination itself is bunk, but especially when there is a fat thumb on the scales of justice that decide the fate of our least fortunate whether it is due to an enemy bullet or a political rebuff. Let us review the real costs of war and, as a minimum, never enter another one without counting the soldiers we leave behind both during and after the war. The costs are real and we need to budget for wars and we need to budget for the record suicides and the thousands of torn families and the physical and emotional pain inflicted on those who fight the good fight and sometimes lose.
It takes trained experts to help the helpless. The Lord knows that I was trained as a soldier and not a social worker. It takes experts to look under the right bridges to find the homeless and a trained eye to see the invisible wounds, but it takes us all to agree to help. It takes us all to change our priorities to include helping the ones we have left behind.
6 January 2013