Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Why War Is Hell

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He was alone in the hospital room, his wife gone for several years. The rest of his large family lived relatively nearby, but he said he saw them rarely. The man was near ninety years old, and now quite sick.

Today, on Memorial Day, I am thinking about this man, and many others I have met over the years.

I am thinking about my mechanic back in St. Louis, a man who was capable of figuring out (at small expense to me) my first car, a 1972 Chevelle that had been altered from automatic transmission to standard, three-on-the-tree. He worked in a garage where his wife kept the books and his buddy worked on the cars, and he oversaw things–telling stories and doing the car work, too, when no one else was there to talk to.

I am thinking about my neighbor, who was not such a storyteller, but one subject did inspire him, as it inspired many other people I grew up with–people whose tales became more real after my visits to the landing beaches in Normandy, after I heard stories, too, from the people who lived there. I am thinking about my uncle, his South Pacific stories. I am thinking about my dad who missed Korea by a weekend–he went home on leave before he was to depart, and the conflict ended.

When I am working, I am mentally searching through the grab bag of possibilities for services. So, asking the question to veterans often prompts a lot of memories–stories that typically involve time, place, but stopping short of specifics or feelings. “Some things should not be discussed,” the man I first mentioned told me. But that day, this veteran told me about the uncertainty, the people he thought he might have killed, friends he saw die. As I left him, I wondered how many times he had told those stories. I wondered about his life now. I thought about courage, and the notion that courage involves shielding people back home from the horror of it all. I don’t know that it is ever possible to do that. Yes, war on every level is hell.

I have a book that I carry around that has descriptions of VA benefits and who is eligible for them, but it is a system that I find quite baffling. In many ways it is easier to understand and navigate, but it is also so separate from the state services I know, so separate also from the rest of the medical world. I am used to walking into busy hospitals that greet their visitors with health messages, gift shops, coffee. The VA hospital greets the public with flags first.

But before they may reach the VA healthcare system, veterans have to enter the system. Veterans are not automatically handed benefits, but have to ask for them. If disabled during service, they have a determination of percentage of service-connection to determine the level of benefits. So, for that disability, the VA works quite well. But, as a veteran’s agent once said to me, “Don’t get hit by a bus and expect the VA to cover it.”

Towns in Massachusetts have given cash benefits to veterans who need them since the Civil War. And there are other federal programs like Aid and Assistance that help veterans (or surviving spouses) as they age and need more help, regardless of the veteran’s service-connected disability. I have met some great people who work for the VA, and as veteran’s agents in our towns. I have seen people get help that they never realized was available.

That said, it can be a difficult system to maneuver, with a great deal of paperwork, and long wait times for benefits.

So I wonder, if we are struggling right now to meet the needs of the veterans who ask for help and are qualified for it, how on earth do we expect to meet the needs of returning veterans from our wars today?

Associated Press reported on May 28 that forty-five percent of the returning 1.6 million veterans now are filing disability claims with the Veterans Administration. War is hell, surely, but from what I see, the war truly begins when it comes back home.

Often I see people who have served the United States, lost love, lost life, lost hope in many ways, but the saddest realizations come when people find that the promises–we will always cover you–cannot be fulfilled.

It is an enormous sacrifice to serve, we all know, but when we go into wars, it is the conflict at hand and the costs directly related to fighting the war that get the money. After the war has ended, at least on paper, it is too easy to forget. It is easy to dismiss the same old stories that we family, friends, spouses, kids hear over and over and over. It is easy to forget the service connected nightmares, the loss, the plea–I was there for you when you needed me, my country. Now where are you for me?

Written by Only Anecdotal

28 May 2012 at 8:52pm

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