Veterans are often first to help and last to ask. That is why America must be vigilent on their behalf. All told, America has roughly 18.8 million veterans, 7.6 percent of the population. Without them, we would have no freedom; with them, we do. They are suffering disproportionately in this virus crisis, and Congress should do all it can to help.
While some 45,000 National Guard personnel help in hosptials, hursing homes, foodbanks and funeral homes, another pool of military personnel – those who once served and now need our help – are at high risk in this crisis.
The data are a give-away. Many of the 200 largest veterans homes in America are populated with older Americans, by definition more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Specifics make the point.
As of mid-April, more than 240 patients in Veterans hospitals have died of COVID-19, 4000 testing positive. At the same time, from before the virus, VA hospitals had 43,000 vacancies among a total of 400,000 overall positions. These numbers describe difficult conditions for healthcare workers and for veterans.
Boradly, veterans who served in World War II, Korea or Vietnam are all older than 55. That cohort represents about half of all US veternas, according to the Census. Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to retire, adding to vets from the first Gulf War era. The median age of today’s American veteran is 64.
Veterans of all ages face challenges later in life not faced as often by non-veterans. Thus, Vietnam era veterans wrestle Agent Orange effects, an estimated 2.8 million exposed. Modern veterans contend with the effects of burn pits, dust storms and oil fires encountered abroad, correlating with respiratory ailments, including asthma.
Combat veterans often suffer physical and psychological wounds. Some heal easily, some not so. Mental health issues dog combat veterans for years. The present crisis is not doing anything to help. Add homelessness to the equation, afflicting 45,000 veterans and the plight of those who served becomes more acute.
During the present health crisis, many of the foregoing realities represent underlying conditions, raising the likelihood of complications when veterans contract the coronavirus.
Adding concern, a quarter of all veterans are minorities, statistically having a tougher go in this crisis. More than 90 percent of veterans are men, again inexplicably harder hit by the virus.
Further complicating matters, many veterans live in “hot spot” states, more than a million in California, Florida, and Texas, half a million in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. That coincidence places veterans – once again – at higher risk.
Add other facts. Many veterans live in one of hundreds of state and private veterans’ homes, many with inordinate infection and death rates. Many vets have been slow to get disability and stimulus checks during the crisis.
All this amounts to one reason Congress is refocusing on veterans. US Senators in early May asked Veterans Affairs to investigate why an inordinate number of deaths are occurring in veterans’ homes and put the Government Accountability Office on the mission as well.
While useful, this approach – using the oversight function of Congress – is always an after-the-fact event. More valuable now would be leaning into the wind and finding ways during this legislative blitz to help those veterans who need help now.
Ideas are many, but good ones include assuring all veterans get timely benefits and stimulus checks, waiving added filings with the IRS, assuring veterans homes and hospitals are prioritized for personal protective equipment, infection testing and antibody tests.
Other veteran-focused ideas include targeting future state and local aide to hiring by veterans’ hospitals, benefits and services tied to veterans’ homes, and assuring hotlines in hot spots for quick reaction.
Veterans are first to help others, often last to ask help. That is why, in a time of national crisis, we need to remember those who rose to help us in prior national crises. To those whom much is given, must is expected. The corollary is, to those who have given much, much is owed. We cannot forget our veterans.