Monday, November 21, 2011

Why "Giving Thanks" Isn't Enough

Suicide, imprisonment, unemployment and homelessness: welcome to being a U.S. Military Veteran in 2011.

First, An excellent series of articles collected by the NYT on stopping the epidemic of suicides among active duty military and veterans.

The statistics are endlessly grim: From 2005 to 2010, service members have killed themselves approximately once every 36 hours. For veterans, the rate is estimated at once every 80 minutes.

Why do so many current and former service members, including those who are never deployed, kill themselves? How can the U.S. reduce that suicide rate?
Many words were uttered on Veteran's Day a few weeks ago about supporting the troops, etc., and with Thanksgiving nearly upon us, you'll no doubt be hearing everyone from Hollywood to D.C. heaping more "thanks" their way. People will stop and buy service members a beer, chant "freedom's not free!" at pseudo-patriotic events, or offer empty applause at airports, but these meaningless gestures and words are simply not cutting it anymore.

Right now the unemployment rate for veterans is over 15% (almost 27% for vets 18-24). As Peter Kramer notes in his piece, there is "simply no substitute for the structure, support and meaning" that goes with having a job.

Work, after all, is a form of social control. The common assumption is that the suicide rate among veterans is so high because of psychological distress, PTSD, etc., but in reality, a job is the best form of therapy. And yet our political leadership is simply doing nothing to address it (for veterans or anyone else, for that matter).

Nor is it doing anything to address the depressing statistic that 10% of all inmates in this country are veterans. That's right: 150,000 veterans linger in our prison and jail systems, most of whom have been convicted of drug-related or other non-violent crimes.

Worse, the National Coalition for Homeless estimates that one-third of America's adult homeless are veterans, "more than 107,000 on any given night."

As Durkheim theorized a hundred years ago, social marginalization leads directly to social pathologies (crime, deviant behavior, and suicide). And as Time noted in a Veteran's Day issue, the widening Military-Civilian gap is growing, isolating and marginalizing members of the service from the society and culture they are there to defend.
"There's no challenge for the 99% of the American people who are not involved in the military," says Army veteran Ron Capps, who served as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan. "They don't lose when soldiers die overseas, they're not being forced to pay, for the wars, and there's no sense among the vast population of what we're engaged in."
Funny, but with all the talk today of the 99% and the 1%, that isn't the image that comes to mind, is it? That less than 1% of the adult age population over 18 served in Iraq or Afghanistan? That when you say "I am the 99%" you mean you have no clue about the military or what it does?

And yet statistically, this 1% is far more likely to end up unemployed, in prison, homeless, or dead at their own hand.

There are a lot of things to be thankful for this coming Thursday, but these numbers are not among them. It is the shame of an ungrateful nation when we turn even simple Veteran's causes into political theater and boorish behavior (in Florida, naturally).

The shame of an ungrateful nation.

UPDATE: A heads up from an alert reader: Obama Signs Bipartisan Jobs Bill for Veterans.

President Obama on Monday signed a bill aimed at getting unemployed veterans back to work, marking a rare moment of bipartisanship among Washington lawmakers this year, and signifying the president's first achievement in pushing individual initiatives of his American Jobs Act through Congress piecemeal after its failure to pass earlier in the fall.

The president, speaking after an introduction from his wife Michelle Obama, said the bill would work to help America's 850,000 unemployed veterans find jobs by offering tax credits to businesses for hiring them - and urged companies to hire veterans because "it's the right thing to do."

Of course, if this were something more than esoteric "tax breaks" to small businesses, I might be more inclined to say Bravo. But something tells me this too falls under the "meaningless symbolism" category of paid bar tabs and airport applause.

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