Taking a quick look around, it's easy to cynically conclude that Memorial Day has become nothing more than a paean to big sales at the mall, beach BBQ's, and getting a day off from school and work. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things - but let's please not forget to whom this day really belongs. And for the record, this holiday isn't just for our brave warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice. It's also for those who served our country and are still with us.
As I reported late last year in The Daily Beast, as many as 30 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. PTSD is often debilitating. These veterans need our help. Now.
Too many lawmakers have seemingly forgotten that America is still at war and that the suicide rates for both active-duty military and veterans are on the rise. But not Bernie Sanders. The no-nonsense Senator from Vermont, Sanders might seem an unlikely advocate for our veterans. After all, he's a longtime anti-war activist who never served in the military. But since he was named chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs six months ago, Sanders has proved to be a passionate and outspoken supporter of veterans.
A rare inside-the-Beltway political gadfly who has no patience for Washington's chronic conformity, Sanders is not afraid to shake things up on The Hill and get in anyone's face who would deny our war heroes. You may not always agree with Bernie's politics. But he's not in DC to win friends. He's there to make a real difference. True to form, Sanders has just released a statement that refreshingly goes beyond the usual perfunctory Memorial Day calls from jaded pols to support the troops. Bernie's statement avoids the bromides and the easy heartstrings. It cuts much deeper. It gets real.
Here's what he has to say:
“Memorial Day must not simply be a day for picnics and ballgames. It is a time to remember and cherish the lives of service members who have died in defense of this nation and appreciate the unimaginable loss their families have experienced. But Memorial Day is not just a time to reflect upon the past. It’s important that we also focus on the present and dedicate ourselves to do all that we can to protect the interests of today’s veterans – many of whom came home from war wounded in body and in spirit.
“In recent years we have come a long way in protecting the needs of our veterans, but much more must be done.
“The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been an extraordinary success. More than 920,000 veterans and family members have utilized this education benefit – at virtually no cost to them. Unfortunately, in a program this large, there have been some payment problems with payments to higher education institutions that must be resolved as soon as possible.
“We also must address the very serious backlog of VA disability claims. While VA is today processing more claims than ever before, it is absolutely unacceptable that veterans in some cases are still waiting years for their claims to be processed. For whatever reason, VA did not even begin the process until 2009 of doing what the entire corporate sector already had done and move from paper to the digital world. Upon assuming his position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a very ambitious transformation of the system. His goal is that by the end of the 2015, all claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. I intend to work with the secretary to make sure that goal is achieved.
“One of our great national embarrassments has been that thousands of American veterans have been homeless and sleeping in the streets. VA has taken on an aggressive initiative to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, and has decreased the number of homeless veterans by 17 percent since 2009. My committee is considering legislation that will enhance VA’s programs to ensure that no veteran in this country is sleeping in the streets.
“Another issue of enormous importance is the alarming rate of suicide among veterans. While suicide is a serious national problem, it impacts veterans at a higher rate. Much of the focus has been on suicide’s impact on younger veterans, but it is also a very serious problem among older veterans who may have completed their work life and may be facing problems of isolation and financial stress. VA must be aggressive in reaching out to veterans at risk of suicide and my committee is working on approaches that we hope can address this issue.
“The Department of Defense estimates that more than 1 million service members will transition out of the military and into civilian life in the next four years. At a time when our country continues to struggle with high unemployment, we must do everything we can to make certain these brave men and women can find meaningful employment.
“We owe the veterans community more than we can ever pay back. As we celebrate Memorial Day this year we must do everything we can to provide them with timely access to the benefits they earned.”