Once upon a time, pre-children and even pre-marriage, I worked directly with combat veterans and their families to provide readjustment counseling. Readjustment from what, you may ask. With less than ten percent of American society having served in the United States Armed Forces, many don’t have an opportunity to speak with combat veterans about their direct experiences in working on the safety and security of this nation and its defenses.
Many veterans walk away from their time in service with what is known as “service-connected disabilities,” which essentially are injuries sustained while they perform the duties for their job. Some are seemingly minor, like sensitivity to light requiring corrective lenses in the sun, while others are more severe, such as back pain which could lead to a loss of mobility as the veteran ages. Then, there are the invisible wounds which are so vast and exhaustive there are too many to discuss here. The most prevalent one heard about in the media is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Yet, the ramifications of any injury or disability can have lasting impact on the veteran and his/her family.
The ramifications of any injury or disability can have lasting impact on the veteran and his/her family… and, by extension, society at large.
Veterans don’t just become injured as they are deciding to come off active duty. Some veterans had lofty dreams and goals of serving twenty years minimum to retirement, and then using their benefits incurred as a direct result of their dedication to serving the protection of this country, to go on and serve publicly again in another way. Other veterans come from military families who can trace their ancestry to the Founding Fathers, want to continue honoring that family legacy by serving. Still more veterans simply find their family among the ranks of their fellow servicemembers, and decide they want to continue to give of their time, service, and dedication along with their fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
And, when their injuries sustained render them incapable of continuing to serve, the world in which we live offers them little support to adjust to a very cold, disinterested society.
Readjustment counseling serves to bridge that gap between military service and adjusting to a “new normal” for our veterans – whether they have seen combat or not. It offers them an opportunity to connect with others who have experienced the same abrupt end of service, the breadth of knowledge and experience of those who have walked the same journey of transition, and yes, the skilled clinical experience to assist when the veteran needs more than a safe place to vent – those who are able to address unique challenges of injuries sustained during service.
In my time at the Vet Center, I met countless veterans who were so amazing. Long after their official “service time,” had ended, many continue to serve countless hours behind the scenes. Whether they connect with each other through motorcycle clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFWs) chapters, church gatherings, or in the groups offered by Vet Centers, veterans find a way to continue to connect with each other… help each other… and serve each other…
Veterans are proof that the band of brothers- (and sisters)- in-arms is indissoluble.
As the wounded warrior begins their transition process, even with the best support of their leadership team, they begin to face unbelievable challenges. They must justify their injuries, they must document the injuries sustained, and they must prove how their service-connection either directly caused or exacerbated their current medical condition. And, even with the best support systems in place, an invisible wall seems to build – a wall built of shock, denial, anger, and frustration. Simply put, it is a wall of grief.
Some processes either slow or lengthen the grief cycle. And, the length of time from beginning a medical separation through the final determination can be quick, or it can be an exceptionally long process. Furthermore, many of our veterans who are separating from active duty due to injuries face bureaucracy and red-tape, leaving them physically separated from active duty service, but in limbo, with no way to earn a paycheck, but still needing to pay their bills and feed their families.
According to the 2019 figures provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the number of veterans without a safe or stable housing situation was 37,085 veterans. I have been unable to locate the most recent number of homeless veterans based on the January 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) account.
Homelessness looks different for each person experiencing it – we are all familiar with the pictures in the media of the homeless begging on street corners. But, I challenge you, dear reader, to recognize the more subvert instances of veteran homelessness:
- The veteran’s full family that moves “in with parents” for an undetermined length of time…
- The veteran that is moving from motel-room to motel-room, not staying more than a few days or weeks at a time…
- The veteran who upgrades their vehicle prior to discharge, to then move all of his/her earthly belongings into it at the end of discharge, to roam the country…
Most veterans are a proud sort, not in a vain way, but in a quiet manner. They don’t like to share their weaknesses with others… and homelessness is a pervasive problem for the wounded veteran population. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, as of March 2020, unemployment among veterans – wounded or not – was up to 3.8 percent, an increase over the 3.1 percent from March 2019. Unemployment gives way to homelessness. And, amidst COVID-19, things in this country are not getting any easier… for civilians and veterans alike.
There are many contributing factors as to the reason for homelessness. There already aren’t enough services to go around for the non-veteran homeless, who may or may not be experiencing comorbid mental health difficulties. Add in the veteran who may have their own disabilities – both physical and/or mental – and the resources in this country are sorely lacking, from physical care (shelters) to psychosocial care (clinical services, medical services, etc.).
One veteran and his family have spearheaded a movement designed to help curb the tide of homeless veterans and ensuring that the discharge process from active duty does not lead to a battle for continued care with our nation’s veterans, who signed on the dotted line to defend our country… and, were wounded in that process of defense.
Major (Ret.) William Ostan began suffering from mysterious medical symptoms after returning from a deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. In January 2018, he was officially diagnosed, “with a rare disease which was triggered by exposure to environmental toxins,” during his time in Afghanistan. His illness was so severe, he was unfortunately unable to continue serving on active duty as a Judge Advocate General (JAG), and the medical board process began.
During the time he was being medically evaluated, treated, and subsequently discharged, he encountered the headache inducing process that is all-too familiar to veterans – agencies not doing their jobs, agencies claiming it isn’t “their” job, but not doing their due diligence to ensure the proper agency was in contact, and frankly, passing the buck.
Much of the dysfunction seems to rest with the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), which ideally serves to make the, “disability evaluation more seamless and transparent.” The idea is that the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) will, “work together to make disability evaluation seamless, simple, fast, and fair,” through the use of IDES.
It all looks great on paper!
Like a graduate school professor once advised, however, the policies of today create the difficulties of tomorrow. It was a challenge to us young social workers to be prudent at the policies we advocate to put in place, and make sure we are prepared to address challenges and difficulties that arise.
Through their shared experience with IDES, Major (Ret.) Ostan and his family have identified some major pitfalls of the IDES process implemented by civilian bureaucrats. Because of their tenacity, the Ostans have been on top of the process for his own medical retirement every step of the way. They held individuals accountable and spoke with agencies that were in the wrong in how the agencies mishandled the medical evaluation process.
However, the Ostans realized that, while they have been able to equip themselves for their own fight for services, there are countless veterans who are unable to battle any fight against bureaucracy when they are still needing the basics covered, such as food… clothing… and shelter.
There are countless veterans who are unable to battle any fight against bureaucracy when they are still needing the basic necessities covered.
Therefore, the Ostans have created the Arc of Justice, USA to help our veterans fight the battle for their rights both prior to and during the IDES process. These are rights that are currently being bypassed and ignored by a broken bureaucracy. Arc of Justice has uncovered a gap in the process that is resulting in forced or improper enrollment into IDES, limited diagnoses (or ignored diagnoses), and lack of accountability which takes away a servicemember’s ability to appeal any wrongdoings.
The Ostans are working with Congress to hold agencies – the nameless, faceless bureaucracies – accountable for their abysmal and abject failure to protect those who have protected our nation.
If we do not close this gap in the medical separation process, it will absolutely contribute to the next generation of homeless veterans.
If we do not close this gap in the medical process, it will absolutely contribute to the next generation of homeless veterans. They will continue to be rushed through a broken system, miss the chance to remain in service, or lack the proper medical care for their condition that could have allowed them function at a higher level upon discharge.
What does this mean for you, dear reader?
Our nation’s veterans are found in every community. Some are wounded, while others are not. Yet, they are all family, connected by their shared values of service and protection of our nation. When one veteran suffers, they all suffer… and, many of them do so in silence.
Veterans are all family, connected by their shared values of service and protection of our nation.
I am asking you to support the cause of Arc of Justice to advocate for wounded warriors and veterans.
Major (Ret.) Ostan has drafted a “Wounded Warrior’s Bill of Rights,” which would guarantee some congressional safeguards for our nation’s veterans as they transition out of active duty and into our civilian communities as veterans. It is important that this Bill of Rights is passed to afford some protection for our nation’s veterans, to include protection against mishandling of sensitive, pertinent medical records and timely decisions in the discharge process.
Phase 1 of this bill is currently on the Congressional docket as H.R. 6466, but this is only step one. They must keep advocating for further reform.
I recognize that right now is a time of financial insecurity for many Americans. Therefore, the support I am asking for is not necessarily financial.
If you are able to donate to their cause, please do so.
If you are able to spread the word about their cause, please do so (you can click the share buttons at the bottom of this article if that is easiest).
If you are able to talk to friends and family about the current plight of our nation’s veterans and study up on how homelessness impacts our local, state, and national economies, I encourage you to do so (high school students can do civics projects at home related to homelessness and its impact on our economy).
If you are able to write to your Congressional representatives in both houses of Congress, I ask that you do so, requesting they support the “Wounded Warrior’s Bill of Rights or H.R. 6466.”
Finally, come this upcoming election season, get out and vote. Vote not along party lines, but for those who support the issues you hold near and dear – and, in my opinion, for those who will best support the men and women who have worn, or still wear, the nation’s uniform. I am not talking about voting for politicians who lend simple, verbal support with amazing soundbites… but, for those who actually have a track record of finding ways to provide support through sound policies and guidance.
Get out and vote for those who actually have a track record of finding ways to provide support through sound policies and guidance!
Every. single. one. of. us plays an integral part in caring for our country.
Some, like the Ostans, are out spreading awareness of the plight of our nation’s veterans and trying to secure a future for these warriors.
I am calling you, dear reader, to pick up the arms of advocating for those who have fought for us, who have defended us, and who now need our help.
Will you join the movement?