Left Justified: Memorial Day Parade: Where are the Afghan/Iraq vets?

Stanley Campbell

By Stanley Campbell

I, like many Rockfordians, enjoyed this year’s annual Memorial Day Parade, since it begins right outside my apartment window on Seventh Street.

I was impressed with the participants. World War II and Korean veterans rode, and my fellow Vietnam vets were still marching (although some looked like they needed to walk more — come on, guys, let’s stay alive!).

There was a large contingent of future soldiers: Rockford Auburn High ROTC. I hope we refrain from sending these fine kids into any stupid foreign engagements.

But where were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans? I did not see them marching as a unit, nor with the American Legions. I know they’re out there. I receive phone calls from them, usually asking for advice on finding jobs or medical help.

I don’t do veterans counseling. There’s better paid and qualified, usually ex-soldier, counselors. I have a good Rolodex, though, and make referrals.

And one of the most needed referrals that I hate to make is to the GI Hotline, 877-447-4487. This is not a government service, but a nonprofit group supported by religious and peace groups. It’s for servicemen and women who need alternative advice.

As a civilian network serving active-duty GIs, here’s what they said:

Eighteen veterans kill themselves daily. An average of one active-duty GI commits suicide every two days. More GIs that were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will die from suicide than from combat.

Despite the epidemic, there are few interventions to reduce suicide. Concerns exist about Department of Veteran Affairs funding, the substantial role played by people working for the military or other branches of government, and the lack of explicit attention to possible conflicts of interest.

We are not optimistic about improved military policies regarding mental illness and suicidality. Despite the Hippocratic requirement to address the client’s needs first, military professionals must maintain combat forces. This double duty leads to breaches in confidentiality, belittlement of distress, and distrust.

Harassment continues to occur when GIs seek help for mental health problems, including suicidality. Our clients report stigmatization, marginalization, and other adverse reactions from commanding officers. ‘Suicide watch’ isolates GIs from their units and subjects them to humiliation.

Outsourcing and privatization exacerbate such problems. Barriers to neuropsychiatric and other specialty consultations result from the reluctance of managed care organizations (MCOs) contracting with TRICARE (the health care program for active-duty personnel and their families) to pay for these referrals. Such contracts have become so lucrative that the executive who benefited most from the Iraq war was one who headed an MCO rather than a military-industrial corporation like Halliburton.

Civilian programs (like GI Hotline) can counteract double agency, harassment, and distrust and offer services, usually on a voluntary basis. Veterans’ organizations opposed to the wars have initiated coffee shops and other outreach programs near military bases and have done some good.”

This is from Dr. Howard Waitzkin, University of New Mexico, and the Civilian Medical Resources Network, a nonprofit help group. He needs professionals who can volunteer as little as four hours a month. Others can help with donations of time and money.

Todd Dennis, Wisconsin state coordinator of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said about the need for helping the Iraq veteran: “A tragic consequence of service backlogs occurred when ex-Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Shulze committed suicide after being turned away by a V.A. hospital in St. Cloud, Minn. His family claims that he more than once told intake workers he was suicidal but was told there was no space, and he was No. 26 in line for a bed.”

I hope you had a happy Memorial Day. Let’s see that veterans also enjoy the day, if not the rest of their lives.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the May 30-June 5, 2012, issue

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