Our Troops Deserve Better than Lazy Lip Service

There can be little question that Americans love and cherish their military heroes. No one in this country can mention the words troops, military, or combat forces in front of more than four people without getting immediate applause. And it is sacrilege to mention these words without inserting in somewhere the phrase “our brave men and women….” We even go so far as devoting minutes of almost every halftime and seventh inning stretch to honoring our brave men and women. See, I can’t help myself. The phrase “our brave men and women” really cannot be avoided when writing or speaking about our military heroes (the only acceptable euphemism for “our brave men and women”). And let’s not forget all of those “support our troops” magnets that we saw everywhere during the Iraq War and still see today.

The above paragraph is of course complete and utter bullshit. Americans, as a whole, only care about their military if said care can be demonstrated with little or no effort (e.g., clapping, talking, affixing bumper stickers). Collectively speaking, we are glad those people are there so we don’t have to be, but we do virtually nothing of substance to actually monitor how well our active service members and veterans are doing, or put pressure on our elected leaders to help improve their rather difficult lot. As demonstrated below, there is ample evidence of this tragedy (which also helps to explain why one study found that enlisted military personnel have the third-worst job in the nation).

Exhibit 1: Soldiers are asked to risk their lives for causes few people understand, support, or care about. The Afghanistan war has now been going on for more than 12 years. Virtually everyone I speak with (myself included) about Afghanistan has little idea of why this war lasted longer than a few months—let alone 12 years! I have heard Bush/Obama/Rumsfeld/Gates repeatedly and incessantly say something about Afghans standing up so we can stand down, but no one can explain to me why it takes 12 years to stand up or why year 13 will be any better than year 3. Regardless of why we are fighting this war (a question that has not yet been adequately answered), Americans don’t care about it. At the close of 2012, organizations such as the Pew Research Center and the New York Times studied the media’s coverage of the war in 2012 and concluded it was virtually absent from all media coverage. Finally, even with Americans completely checking out from this war, they have managed to feign just enough interest to conclude they don’t like it and want it to end as soon as possible. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 67% of Americans think the Afghanistan war was not worth the cost, and only 36% of Americans think the military still has important objectives to accomplish in Afghanistan. Our brave men and women have the unenviable task of fighting a war no one understands, few people think needs fighting; and even fewer people support. Despite this fairly unified opposition, the public cannot be bothered to pressure their leaders to end it and bring our troops home.

Exhibit 2: Not enough is being done to stop the rampant sexual abuse occurring in our military. Until drastic measures are taken, every parent of a female, should do everything in their power to prevent their daughter from joining the military. Thirty-seven percent of all women in our Armed Forces report being raped while in the military. Fourteen percent report being raped at least twice. Just 2.5% of those suspected of committing sexual assault face any type of discipline. There are a few brave law makers such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who are fighting loudly and aggressively to bring attention to this issue and pass legislation that would make it easier to report abuse and harder to get away with it, but too many in Congress and the upper brass wish to preserve the disturbing status quo. A public outcry would unquestionably bring about meaningful legislation action to halt much of this abuse, and accelerate the positive changes some areas of the military have begun to make. As less than 1% of our population serves in our military at any given time, however, this issue is not important enough for us civilians to do much.

Exhibit 3: The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is nearly 50% higher than it is for non-veterans. There are many factors that contribute to this, but it is clear that our private sector job-creators are not exactly bending over backwards to hire veterans. This remains the case despite unprecedented attempts by our federal government to encourage businesses to hire veterans. The federal government has even gone so far as to bribe businesses with tax credits. The federal government has also been aggressive to make veterans more attractive to the private sector by creating vocational retraining programs and doing its best to ensure that the skills learned in the military are transferrable to the private sector. As you can see from these numbers, private sector employers are giving veterans and their skills a collective “meh.”

Exhibit 4: If a veteran needs mental health treatment or disability benefits, he or she had better be prepared to wait. In 2010, more than 500 veterans in the Atlanta area were on a waiting list to see a mental health professional. The average wait was three months. Sixteen of those people committed suicide in 2010 while waiting for treatment. Veterans’ wait in Atlanta for mental health treatment is still two to three months on average. While Atlanta’s mental health resources may be worse than most areas, and improvements have been made in virtually all VAs, the lack of adequate mental health resources available to our veterans is all too common, and for those who needed timely care six, eight, or ten years ago, the recent hiring of more mental health professionals is cold comfort. The lack of resources to treat mental health is due in large part to the government inexplicably not foreseeing a rapid growth in demand for mental health care while fighting two wars, and still not devoting the funding that is obviously needed. For those veterans who are filing disability claims, the news is even worse. The average wait time for a person’s disability claim to be processed is 262 days—or about nine months. This again is due in large part to inadequate resources being devoted to veterans and poor oversight. A large groundswell of public support could likely bring the resources and attention these veterans deserve, but public interest in helping the troops is just not there.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the ways in which we as a society ignore the very real and important needs of our military. A person currently in the military could likely provide many more. The above list does, however, demonstrate that American civilians do not put their money where their mouth is with regard to our military. Every time I am at a sporting event or other public place where some speaker wants to “honor” our brave men and women I am struck by the profound hollowness of the act, as well as those people around me who must actually believe that our military’s needs are fully met when they pay meaningless lip service to others’ military service.

Despite our nation’s collective shame in properly honoring our troops, I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are currently amazing organizations that are doing great things to help our veterans such as the USO, Wounded Warrior Project, and VoteVets.org. And yesterday I saw this article about a veteran who, while waiting tables, was the target of a bigot’s unkind words and refusal to leave a tip. The next day, she received $1,700 in tips and has already said she will be giving most of it to the Wounded Warrior Project. My article does not wish to overlook the important contributions of the many organizations and individuals who are making a difference for vets, but I do want to highlight that they cannot—and should not have to—do it alone. We civilians need to collectively let our elected leaders and business leaders know how we can and should honor our military heroes in a meaningful way. This means placing our service members in harm’s way only when absolutely necessary; protecting them from sexual assault; getting them adequate physical and mental healthcare; and giving them a chance to succeed in the workplace once they are discharged. That is what supporting our troops should look like.

– Dylan

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