A Veterans Day Note

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Tue, Nov 11, 2014, 1:34 pm  //  John Servais

Google "homeless veteran" and this is the first image. No photo credit on site from which I took this.

I’m a veteran.  I joined the Air Force in 1963 and served overseas for three years.  I joined out of patriotism and have always been proud of that.  I wanted to serve my country and felt it a duty.  But let me tell you - as an old man now - I realize how much a stint in the military can disrupt a young person’s career plans. 

When one is discharged, one does not just slip back into a civilian career and move forward.  There is a bit of shock and being a civilian is a whole different world from being in the military.  Our veterans need help transitioning to civilian life.  I did it with no help almost 50 years ago - and the vast majority of vets do it without any help.  There is no help from the Veterans Administration.  The VA is fubar, although there is again hope for positive change.

Unless you have been in the military, you cannot understand the disconnect between civilian and military life.  What our country has always fallen short on - and still does - is helping veterans adjust to civilian life.  I have read that half of all vets are homeless for their first two years after service.  I believe it.  What we learn in the military for survival and functioning just does not work in civilian life.

What puzzles me is how our U.S. Congress can short-change vets as it does.  Congress spends for the wars and big military toys on a continuous basis but has always short-changed veterans.  Always.  Since the beginning our our country, through the Civll War and all our modern wars. Congress and the VA just refuse to really follow through and support veterans.  Help is left to private donors and non-profit organizations. 

What inspired me to write just now was an incident that happened to me about a month ago.  I am on the board of a local organization and I had just taken responsiblity for a local public flag.  As the flag pole was a dedicated Veterans flag pole, I mentioned to the group that I was a vet.  And the secretary, a person I have worked with for years but did not know I was a vet, said, “John, thank you for your service.” 

I almost teared up.  I think it was the first time in my life anyone had said that to me.  When I have heard this said to others - on TV or at speeches - I have always thought it was a bit patronizing - a bit just paying empty lip service to vets.  But said to me, it tugged at my heart strings.  I was amazed at my own emotional reaction. I had no idea I would react like that. 

So I want to tell you, gentle reader, that saying thanks to a vet does mean something.  I’m not jumping on the band wagon of the slow militarization of our American way of life - but rather suggesting that the people who have given up several precious years of their lives to serve deserve much more than we provide them.  They earned it.  In spades.  Whether they saw combat or not.  Any who served know this simple truth: you go where they tell you to go and you do what they tell you to do.  Whether combat or support, a person in the military does what they are told to do.  That is the definition of duty. 

But much more important than saying thanks is to fund programs for veterans, programs for transitioning back to a healthy civilian life, for assistance on medical expenses for life, for more sensitivity toward emotional and psychological help, for education and housing benefits.  This should be done through our taxes and our government and the VA.  It should not fall to public charity.  This is one of the proper functions of government - good government.

For the top photo, I googled "homless veteran".  Took the first photo.  

John Lesow  //  Tue, Nov 11, 2014, 4:05 pm

John, thank you for your service.

I just returned from an International Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Point Roberts Firehall for Veterans from Canada and the United States.  The room was packed.  Standing room only.  I have attended similar ceremonies over the years and this one was the most memorable. The speeches of our uniformed First Responders from the United States and Canada were respectful and eloquent.  Everyone joined in singing the Star Spangled Banner and O Canada.

Our keynote speaker was Vietnam veteran Ron Swalling, a Point resident whose family history in the United States armed forces represented an unbroken line of continuous military service dating back to World War I in every theatre:  WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosevo, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq.  I told Ron afterwards that it was the most moving speech I have ever witnessed, and it was.  He spoke of his grandfather’s four brothers that served in World War I.  Three never returned from Europe, victims of the hellish trench warfare of that period.  He spoke of the distain he encountered from some members of the public as a Army veteran returning from Vietnam. Strangers spitting on him. The lack of proper medical care for PTSD.

At times Ron’s soft voice would crack as he spoke of his experiences and those of his father, his grandfather and his sons. But as a good soldier, he never wavered in delivering this amazing and heartfelt tribute to his family and veterans everywhere, particularly those from Canada and the United States.

At the end of Ron’s elegant speech, I doubt if there was a dry eye in the Hall.  I know mine were not.

There was one Second World War veteran in our presence, and she was given special recognition by our Fire Chief.  I did not get her name, but she lives in Point Roberts.  A lovely lady of 93, elegantly dressed and looking young for her years.

She was recognized as one of the U.S. Army code breakers that worked in Blackpool, England during WW II.  She and the other members of this exclusive group were responsible for breaking the German code that allowed the Allies to intercept and interpret messages from the German command to their armies, air force and naval forces.

How fortunate we are to have this extraordinary person living among us.  A true heroine that I felt honored to approach, shake hands and to whom saying a simple “Thank you for your service” seemed woefully inadequate.  How many lives were saved as a result of breaking the German code? Most historians, including Winston Churchill, agree that the work by cryptologists in England shortened the Second World War by two years. 

Looking forward, yesterday I received a letter from Robert A. McDonald, the new Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, a paratrooper and former Chairman and CEO of Proctor and Gamble.  He advised that three months ago, the President and Congress enacted the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which directed the establishment of a new program to provide improved access and meet the short-term health care needs of our Nation’s Veterans.

This is a new, temporary benefit that will allow some Veterans to receive health care in their communities rather than waiting for a VA appointment or travelling long distances to a VA facility.  Since I am 150 miles from the Veteran’s Hospital in Seattle, I qualify. 

I have been using the VA hospital in Seattle for 15 years and have no complaints about the quality of the medical care delivered to me, which includes a hip replacement, cancer surgery and a heart operation.  However, I can say from experience that the quality of administration is not up to 21st century standards. 

So it was with some satisfaction that, under Secretary McDonald’s new program,  I was able to call a toll-free number this afternoon and have the VA schedule an appointment at St. Joseph’s in Bellingham.

It took all of 5 minutes.


John Servais  //  Tue, Nov 11, 2014, 6:27 pm

John Lesow, thanks for your comment.  As you note, the new ‘Access & Choice’ act is good reason for hope—as is the appointment of McDonald as VA secretary.  While long overdue, we must look forward.  Thanks for mentioning this.

If any veterans are reading this and are not aware of this new Access and Choices process, they should check with someone who can tell them more.  It is new and it is good and it is helping vets who had waited months and years for help.


Dick Conoboy  //  Thu, Nov 13, 2014, 8:52 am

And now we learn that the Army is drawing down, leaving some of our young officers and enlisted out in the street to face a indescribably horrible job market (yes, I know unemployment is down if you think minimum wage and part time jobs are just peachy)  This from a NYTimes article entitled “Army Cuts Hit Officers Hard, Especially Ones Up From Ranks”:  + Link

“And for reasons the Army has not explained, the largest group of officers being pushed out — nearly one in five — began as enlisted soldiers.

For many of those officers, being forced out of a life they have known for a decade or more has been a disruption as shocking and painful as being laid off. They are losing jobs, and in many cases, receiving smaller pensions than they had expected — or no pensions at all. They are being forced to give up their identities as soldiers. Some are losing their ranks or status as officers. All must be out by April.”

This sounds mighty familiar.  We saw this on a scale much larger after Vietnam as I recall.  A lot were warrant officers who were promoted mostly to fly helicopters and other small aircraft.  Many were in the maintenance field and ran motor pools.  Many officers I knew had to revert to their enlisted rank and those were the lucky ones, at least they eventually got a pension but they had to serve to 20 years at that time to get anything at all.  At least those who were forced out had a relatively good job market to look forward to.  Now there is shit.

As a consequence, the burden of multiple deployments will fall even more heavily on those who remain in the service.

A fine “f**k you” to the troops. Perhaps the troops may finally understand…like Tommy Atkins in Kipling poem.

“I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!”


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