Veterans deserve more than lip service
For the servicemen and women of our armed forces who are killed overseas, the memorials and parades surrounding Veterans Day are meaningless. The fallen are beyond the reach of such pageantry and praise; any sentiment of appreciation is spoken to deaf ears. And while we may reject such a counterintuitive notion, in truth, we honor the casualties of war for the benefit of the living.
Whether it is to console the grieving families of the deceased or to alleviate our own feelings of guilt, any tributes made for the soldiers lost are at least in part a form of penance. However, the dead are primarily remembered to prove to the active military and veterans that they will not be forgotten, and that their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice is recognized and valued.
When respect for those killed in action is disregarded, we become incensed. The recent revelations that the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base lost body parts and committed other gruesome acts against service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are not exempt from our outrage. In at least two cases, small fragments of a soldier’s remains were misplaced. In another instance, a Marine killed in a bomb blast was returned to Dover where employees at the mortuary were tasked with placing his body in uniform for one final viewing by his family. The soldier’s injuries were so severe that the workers were at first unable to do this. As a rather grisly solution, and without the family’s consent, a fairly large portion of bone was sawed off from the soldier’s left arm. Adding to these atrocities, it was discovered that the ashes of an unknown number of war dead were disposed of in a Virginia landfill. An Air Force investigation determined that the mortuary was rife with such failures and deficiencies, and placed the blame largely on three top officials. Inexplicably, not one of these officials was fired.
As horrific as these instances are, our indignation is both undeserved and misplaced — the job that these morticians face is ghastly. Soldiers killed in action often do not arrive fully intact, as with the victims of improvised explosive devices frequently returning home in zip-lock bags. Multiple casualties are sometimes difficult to separate from one another. Amidst all of this confusion, mistakes are remarkably few and far between.
Of course it is unsettling when errors occur, but these are not made out of disrespect or callousness. In fact, we the public reveal our own level of callousness with our preoccupation with the deceased. For all of our concern for the soldiers killed, we continue to pay little more than lip-service to the thousands of military personnel returning home from recent fighting and the veterans of wars past.
We sit idly by as the suicide rate for veterans continues to be disproportionately high. Every 80 minutes a former soldier takes his or her life. Mental health services that should be in place to prevent such sorrows are severely lacking. As an additional repercussion of such limited concern, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and drug addiction plague veterans and destroy their ability to function in society. This is reflected by the fact that nearly one in four veterans are homeless and far more likely to die on the streets than the rest of the homeless population. Job prospects for veterans do not help the situation. It is inexcusable that the unemployment rate for our returning military is three times higher than that of the general public’s; these are men and women with a proven ability to follow orders and a demonstrated commitment to do their duty.
While our bluster and fury toward the happenings at Dover Air Force Base is understandable, it rings hollow. Yes, the bodies of the servicemen and women who give their lives for the sake of the country demand our utmost respect. But so does our military, the survivors of the trials of war return only to face immense challenges and unjust treatment at home. The nation must commit more resources toward programs that assist veterans. It is the least we can do for those who are willing to give so much for us.Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology doctoral student and may be reached at [email protected].