For all the talk about "supporting the troops" that we hear from the Bush administration, we keep seeing more and more evidence that the men and women who serve in the military are nothing more than campaign props to be trotted out whenever convenient.
A few stories from the past couple of weeks illustrate this:
* The Pentagon has been offering huge bonuses, up to $20,000 in some cases, to get service members to re-enlist. But there is one big catch. If you are seriously wounded and unable to complete your term of service, the Defense Department requires you to pay back a pro-rated amount of the bonus.
So if you've lost a limb or two, or your eyesight and hearing, or suffer from a traumatic brain injury and can longer serve, the Pentagon will be at your door, looking for its money.
Apparently, wounded veterans, many of whom have no money, are being dunned by the government because of a policy that makes no sense and has no heart.
* The Veterans Administration remains overwhelmed by the demands of taking care of hundreds of thousands of new veterans. Despite the attention focused this spring on the deficiencies of the military's medical system, little has changed. According to the VA, it takes an average of 183 days to process a claim, and the backlog of pending claims to be processed is more than 391,000. Staff shortages plague the VA system and there seems to be little chance there will be more money and manpower available to remedy the problem.
* CBS News recently contacted the governments of all 50 states requesting official records of death by suicide going back 12 years. They heard from 45 states, and sifted through the information to find how many Americans who served in the military have taken their own lives. They found that in 2005 alone, more than 6,200 veterans committed suicide. That's an average of about 120 a week, or 17 a day.
It's not just people who've just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are also taking their lives. Since post traumatic stress injuries can sometimes takes decades to manifest themselves, the stories and images from our current wars are awakening traumas from past wars.
The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't track this data. Neither does the Defense Department. Both deny there is an epidemic. Despite figures showing that more than 20 percent of active duty soldiers and more than 40 percent of reservists are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious mental health issues, the military is doing little to help these men and women.
* According to the VA, one in three homeless Americans -- about 200,000 in all -- are veterans. And the U.S. Justice Department estimates that about 12 percent of the seven million people in the nation's corrections system -- either in prison, parole or probation -- have served in the military.
Taken together, these snapshots of how our veterans are being treated shows us just how high a physical and mental toll they have paid. It also shows us how little medical and financial assistance is available to them.
It also shows how "support the troops" have become the most hollow words in the modern political lexicon.
The social burden of this war is being carried by a small part of our population. Unless a member of the family is in the service, most Americans are untouched by what is becoming a growing crisis in this country. Quite simply, our military is stretched to the breaking point, and our leaders don't seem to care that there are men and women being crushed by the burdens of this war.
The next time you hear any politician say that they support the troops, ask them what they have done to ensure that the VA gets enough money to deal with the flood of new patients. Ask them what they've done to help veterans get the mental health treatment they need. Ask them what they've done to keep the Pentagon from trying to pick the pockets of wounded veterans. Ask them what they've done to fund programs to help combat veterans readjust to civilian life.
Until we see Congress and the White House take action on these issues and end the shameful treatment of the men and women who gave their all for the country, all talk about supporting the troops is just that -- talk.
© 2007 the Brattleboro Reformer