Wisconsin veterans need our help. As our country and state temporarily shift their focus to honor the sacrifices of the men and women who served this Veterans Day, the moment also lays bare glaring shortfalls in actual commitments to our veterans.
I am an Army veteran of 36 years and have been active in the Wisconsin American Legion for 17. Much has changed over those years in the veteran community. In fact, the community itself has changed. We have a younger generation of veterans who have served in conflicts since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and who have a unique set of post-conflict challenges.
All wars have their heroes, but they also produce broken souls and bodies. Post-traumatic stress disorder is affecting more veterans, as is massive abuse of pain-relieving, over-prescribed opioids. Suicide among our veterans is at an alarming rate — 20 per day, which is 7,300 a year. More have been lost to suicide than to actual battles. This should concern all who profess to care about veterans, their families and the specialized health care they deserve.
As the Wisconsin American Legion state commander, I ask myself every day, “Am I — are we — doing enough?” The answer is “no.” We need to get more serious and fight harder for the veterans who are not able to fight.
Well-meaning Wisconsin lawmakers, the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the administrators at state-run health care facilities need to ask themselves the same question. Are we really doing the best for our state veterans and their families? The solutions are complex, but they start with a heartfelt commitment.
At the Wisconsin American Legion, we need to do a better job of articulating how we are fighting for this new generation, what services we can provide and where veterans can turn for effective health care and job opportunities.
Money doesn’t cure all ills or solve all problems. But adequately funding those programs that address veteran homelessness, drug addiction, suicide and job opportunities should be an imperative. Debate over what represents the most effective approach is valid, but let us not get bogged down to the degree that we continue to lose our warriors who have survived war.
They made it home. They deserve our respect and gratitude, as well as quality services. Our veterans deserve better.
Caring for veterans is not a partisan issue. Some in the Legislature and at the state Department of Veterans Affairs have accused the Wisconsin American Legion of “getting too political.” The legion will continue to aggressively advocate as we lose veterans to neglect, institutional drug dealing and, ultimately, suicide. It matters little to us if a lawmaker has an “R” or a “D” by his or her name. The 100-year mission of the legion is crystal clear — we fight for veterans and their families.
This Veterans Day, once the political speeches, hometown parades and news coverage end, we need to be sure we still stand for veterans’ care. No more empty symbolism and flag waving. Let’s unify and get to work.
Clewell is state commander of the Wisconsin American Legion, representing 60,000 members and 507 posts across the state: www.wilegion.org.