Sunday, June 21, 2009

U.S. policies should honor our troops

In the Moving Wall hospitality tent on Friday afternoon, volunteers responded to a steady volume of requests to look up the names of loved ones to find their position on the wall. Looking ahead to the weekend, they expected much more visitors to arrive from all over California.

Flowers and mementos decorated the foundation that held the panels of the moving wall. Tents were set up to assist with grief counseling and to put veterans in touch with Veterans' Administration services. Statues by Rolf Kriken provided focal points to meditate upon the war and the soldiers who fought in it.

The Moving Wall justifiably occupied a priority in Lake County's consciousness, from its opening ceremony on Thursday morning, June 11, until its closing Monday, June 15. During that interval, the wall was accessible 24 hours a day, with volunteers working in shifts.

I was gratified to see our community respond with so much generosity to assist our local chapter, No. 941, of the Vietnam Veterans of America. This was the Moving Wall's only stop in Northern California during its tour in 2009 and the VVA deserves to feel proud of its members' accomplishments in bringing the Moving Wall here.

The VVA's intent was to give Lake County an opportunity to honor and respect the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, as well as to contribute healing toward lingering scars.

To see our nation's soldiers respected is a personal concern for me; my father was a staff sergeant in Vietnam. I also have two brothers in the U.S. Air Force, one active-duty and one reserve.

Some stories I read in recent years gave me reason for concern, however, that our policies may fall short when it comes to how we care for our living veterans.

In "Surviving on Military Pay," published in Today in the Military" (www.military.com), retired Navy chaplain Gene Gomulka calculated a balance of $49 left over from a military family's base pay, housing allowance and other income after expenses were factored in.

In a follow-up article, "Food stamps are not the answer," Gomulka elaborates on military pay structures, suggesting that pay determination for grades E-1 to E-4 is based upon the belief that these personnel are all single and that the pay they receive is adequate to meet the needs of a single life.

"Programmed pay increases for E-5 and above were not simply based upon their greater knowledge, experience and longevity, but also on the fact that most E-5s and above had spouses and children to support."

The testimonies of military respondents cited in that follow-up article make clear that the situation is different today. Many junior-grade military personnel have families to support and even families at E-5 report living from paycheck to paycheck.

An article in Mother Jones, "The Few, the Proud, the Indebted," May/June 2004, cited payday lenders' figures that 2 percent of their customers are active-duty military but that the figure is nearly four times the percentage of active-duty military in the total population.

Put another way, if active-duty military made up as much as 5 percent of our total population (the actual figure is quoted at less than 1 percent for most of U.S. history), they would make up 20 percent of payday lenders' customers.

"Soldiers and sailors, often struggling to make ends meet, go in for a quick short-term loan, unaware of exorbitant interest rates — typically 390 percent annually — that can lead into a cycle of debt," author Paul Fain states in his article.

The solution to this could be state or U.S. laws that cap interest rates -- not just for payday lenders but credit card companies as well.

The other area in which I believe we are failing the members of our U.S. Armed Forces, is that the funding that Congress gives to the VA is not nearly enough, particularly when it comes to funding the treatment of mental disorders.

An article by Christoper Getzan in the New Standard (http://newstandardnews.net), "VA Funding Fails to Meet Increased Demand for Services, Groups Say," cited a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) report dated July 2004 that showed an increased risk of mental health disorders among Middle East veterans. It reported that between 11 and 17 percent of troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan exhibited symptoms of mental illness -- such as generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol misuse.

Adam Weinstein, writing in Mother Jones, September/October 2008, puts the figure at 20 percent of active-duty soldiers and 42 percent of reservists returning from Iraq with psychological problems ("The Pentagon's PTSD Denial").

Getzan further reported the study's findings that among those with symptoms, only 23 to 40 percent request mental health care, due to perceived barriers such as fear of stigmatization. He reports that the NEJM recommends that increases in confidentiality and access to mental health services become a top priority in future planning for the VA.

If there is good news in our nation's attitude toward its veterans, I believe it is an issue that transcends political boundaries. Whether you are conservative or liberal, I think most people can agree that we need to support our troops. Our U.S. policies need to reflect public statements of that support.

Published June 16, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee and June 17, 2009 in the Clear Lake Observer American

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