Memorial Day 2 weeks later: A day for the dead, but what about the survivors?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE June 20, 2016

gen george marshall ww2

We are going to take care of the troops, first, last and all the time'   - George Marshall, 1940

Really?! General Marshall must be spinning in his grave.

You might be wondering why an article about Memorial Day is nearly 2 weeks after the actual day of commemoration, and why I will use it to talk about veterans. Simply put, if we want to honor the dead, let's take care of the men and women in uniform they died for. I can picture the ghosts of deceased military - brave men and women who died in battle - floating above, and crying for their battlefield buddies who survived, because too many of these veterans sleep under bridges, and pan-handle on our street corners. Whether because of undiagnosed or undertreated psychiatric disorders - battlefield related or not - or economic reasons, too many of our former servicemen and women are marginalized. That needs to stop.

To be sure many community charities are trying to fill the gaps, and provide outreach to struggling vets. But it is a patchwork of efforts - sincere, sometimes effective, but not comprehensive enough.

Most countries have some form of commemoration for those who wore the uniform, especially those who died for their nation. Not that the media are doing much to honor the dead.  But Memorial Day should also put into specific relief a sobering notion that we have active duty who can die in the next battle, and veterans who will die - not from an enemy's bullet but on a street, homeless, hungry, alone, or sick and waiting for promised medical care from a system designed to provide for the military continues to fail.

On behalf of a grateful nation...but are we?

I shudder to think homelessness, untreated illness, or vets abandoned after being wounded is our nation's expression of "gratitude," or commemorating the sacrifice of survivors. Not exactly the stuff of a grateful nation.

The security of a nation rests upon the shoulders of men and women in uniform - and that security comes with a price...including blood. Memorial Day reminds us of that ultimate sacrifice made for our country. Veteran's Day celebrates those who served, and by extension, those still in uniform; a day often overlooked by society beyond being a great time to buy a car. Neither Veteran's Day nor Memorial Day seems sufficient. Critically important infrastructure changes are needed to provide for those who serve.

Often tempted to opine if the military voted Democrat instead of mostly Republican, would the administration treat our people in uniform better? Like maybe as well as the entitlement folks? Truth be told, neither party has distinguished itself in the service of our military's needs.

I remember Mayor Koch once questioned how it was that one little woman (his mom) could take care of him and his siblings, and yet it took all those same kids working together to care for that same little old woman. The analogy holds true for our nation.  How is it that 1% of our fellow countrymen and women who wear the uniform, can admirably protect our country, yet the 99% (think 300,000,000 people) are not up to the task of protecting, paying better wages to, and providing adequate care for our service men and women?  Honoring those who fall in battle is an important effort, but as the Scriptures instruct ‘life is for the living' i.e. let's recognize we ask too much of the too few wearing the uniform, and overlook veterans who are on the brink.

With bases, embassies and conflicts all across the planet fair game for deployment, our military face the risk of suffering horrific wounds, being in dangerous, inhospitable environments, and potential deprivation.  And this is a volunteer military! These volunteers, our fellow citizens willingly let us send them into harms' way once they put on the uniform. Some will end up safe, having great careers, and rejoining society. Others will return with physical and/or psychological trauma. Some will return home under a flag, and some won't return at all.

For the hundreds of thousands remaining who have served over the years - one day (Veteran's Day or Memorial Day) is not nearly enough of a reminder to remember, honor, thank, or show concern for our service men and women. Not impugning the day per say; but there is the notion that somehow making a national holiday for the military who fought, and a holiday for those who died is pari passu taking care of them. It isn't.

And is it lost on anyone that our current political leaders are fretting more about the Syrian "refugees" that might be turned away, than the tens of thousands of veterans turned away from VA hospitals, or sleeping out in the cold?

Consider what our fellow citizens seem to care about. There are umpteen face book postings about how we should take one, take all from Syria belies a few noble truths. First almost certainly some of these folks are the equivalent of Trojan Horses - terrorists in their midst. And for those who dismiss such concerns as xenophobic or paranoid, remember it only takes a handful of people to murder a crowd of people - think Paris, or Brussels, n'est pas? Second, significant disease burden- which of course our government will find healthcare for them faster than for our own veterans! Sadly, you would be hard pressed to find face book postings denouncing the challenges facing military wounded, or the disastrous VA, or the growing homelessness among veterans, or the challenges of families who have had a father, mother, husband, wife, son or daughter die in the Gulf or other danger zone on behalf of the US. Yet we in the US are asked to be somewhat of a buddy system community wise, taking in folks from Syria - some of whom undoubtedly are Al Qaeda or ISIS or other flavor of Jihadist sympathizer.  How about asking Americans to become a buddy system for our veterans, or the survivors of those who gave their last full measure of devotion?

If I may be so bold, we as a society need to do the buddy system for our veterans, and the families of those who still serve, or lost a loved one in service to our country. Whether ensuring homeless veterans in our midst find appropriate housing, psych/medical care, and support, to buying a cup of Joe for a GI Joe, to lobbying our politicians (as Tip O'Neil opined, all politics is local) to enhance community programs, along with military benefits package, especially for people who have done multiple tours of duty in conflict zones.

Shameful as a society, servicewomen returning from the battlefields of the Middle East are now among the fastest growing group of new homeless in the United States. It isn't bad enough they almost die in the streets of Baghdad or Kabul, now they must risk death on the streets of America. When someone who has served his or her country dies on the street, or waiting for medical care - a memorial, if it comes at all, is way too little, too late.

As I wrote in an earlier article, returning veterans suffer delays in healthcare significantly more than the national average for civilians (if you look at the real, not cooked VA data). No wonder they end up on the streets. And our military often earn less than many of their civilian counterparts...and shamefully, some earn even less than welfare recipients. Not surprisingly with lower than adequate incomes, our military often cannot afford the same housing costs when they return, or transition out of the military.

As a society, our allowing these challenges to continue is not the efforts of "a grateful nation" or way to commemorate sacrifice, honor our veterans, or their fellow service-members who died.

Our politicians fret about illegal immigrants and welfare recipients far more then they worry about our volunteer military - our men and women who choose to wear the uniform, knowing the battlefield is just an assignment away. Is it too much to ask that we as a society live up to our promise to care for our military and their families?

‘The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten' - Calvin Coolidge, 1920

President Coolidge may not have been an Oval Office rock star, but he certainly got it right in his comments about our military.

How many Americans think about our servicemen and women, the sacrifice they make, or the veterans now that the flags have come down? As our community now focuses on 4th of July, summer cookouts, graduations, and vacations, how many widows, and half orphans, or living veterans will rely upon charity dinners for their next meal, perhaps forgotten, perhaps not? How many survivors or loved ones bear wounds we have forgotten now that the bunting is down, and the stars/stripes party favors are tossed?

Thankfully we have the power to make a difference - from enlisting the main stream media to become more proactive in covering the challenges our military face, to lobbying our elected officials (local, state, and federal) to do a better job fixing broken military programs and to develop policies that can foster improved benefits, services, and opportunities. We can utilize our own time, talent and treasure - as individuals, or employers - to help those in our communities who served, and now face struggles.

Memorial Day - Appropriate for the dead, but what about the survivors?

Memorial Day - it is a gesture made from a grateful nation. Necessary, important, and vital for us to face head on our military die for us, and for their buddy in the foxhole. One dies so another may live. We cannot bring back the dead. The rest of the year we can, however, demonstrate to the living - those still in uniform, and veterans, we are a grateful nation. To do any less makes Memorial Day an empty promise, and ultimately insults the memory of those who gave their last full measure of devotion. 

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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