Buckle up. This could get rocky.
According to figures supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) last month, 20 veterans a day committed suicide in 2014. Let that settle in for just a moment. That is 20 human beings a day taking their own lives. That’s 20 families, each and every day, ripped apart at the seams.
Look, I’m biased. Let’s get that out there right now. I was fortunate to serve with some of the most decent, brave and honorable people I’ve ever met as a member of the United States Marine Corps in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I worked with them. I trained with them. I showered with them, ate with them, drank far too many cocktails with them and placed my very life in their hands on foreign soil.
To this day, they are my heroes.
And 20 of them, on average, are taking their own lives every day. According to this report, as shared in an Associated Press story, the rate of suicide among female veterans was 18.9 per 100,000. The rate for females in the civilian population was 7.2 per 100,000. The VA report also shows that older veterans make up the most suicides — as close to two-thirds of all veterans who died by suicide were age 50 and older.
The natural target for many veterans I’ve talked with over recent years has been the VA itself, and during the VA scandal of 2012-2015, it was revealed that 1,000 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor, according to a story in Forbes. I’ve always taken another side in these arguments — voicing that the real problem was that the VA was criminally underfunded and understaffed, and pointed my finger at politicians on both sides of the political aisle who seemingly had no qualms with sending our young men and women overseas to fight their battles, but didn’t take any initiative in ensuring that they would be properly taken care of when they came home.
Indeed, after the scandal broke, the VA added 446 new psychologists last year and 80 new psychiatrists, according to Dr. David Shulkin, the undersecretery for health at the VA. Shulkin added that the VA is also adding 60 employees to the Veterans Crisis Line to make it easier for veterans calling their local VA facilities to connect directly to the suicide hotline, according to that earlier Associated Press story.
With that bit of information it would appear that the crisis at the VA generated some action and caused some more money to flow to veterans services, right? Well, maybe. But that aforementioned article in Forbes had another nugget of information that caused me to flip my position a bit on who has been at fault in regards to veterans receiving adequate care and attention.
Let me just share a paragraph from this piece by Adam Andrzejewski with you:
“Yet, in the midst of these horrific failings the VA managed to spend $20 million on high-end art over the last  years — with $16 million spent during the Obama years.”
The article cites a joint investigation by Cox Media Washington, D.C., and OpenTheBooks.com that revealed that the VA bought a 27-foot artificial Christmas tree costing $21,000, 62 “local image” pictures for the San Francisco VA facility costing $32,000, a “Ribbons of Honor” glass structure for a VA outpatient center in Anchorage costing $100,000 and a $482,960 “rock sculpture” during courtyard renovation for the Palo Alto, Calif., facility, as well as $115,600 spent on art consultants.
And let’s not forget my personal “favorite” from the report: two scultures with a price tag of $670,000 for a VA center serving veterans who are blind.
Yeah, you read that right.
In no way am I disparaging art, nor will I ever discount the impact the right piece of art can have on someone’s soul and mind. In fact, I believe with all my heart that art and music can have true therapeutic benefits, particularly for people suffering emotional wounds. Have you ever had a particularly miserable day and hearing the right song or seeing something that really captivates your mind just makes everything better?
But couldn’t administrators have found compelling art work that maybe didn’t prevent someone grasping at straws from receiving immediate care? Couldn’t they have come to the Boardwalk Arts Festival or outdoor art show at Gallery One and found art that would help people find some inner peace while not hamstringing them from adding medical professionals who could save lives? Heroes’ lives?
I know. That $20 million is a drop in the bucket for organizations like this, and I grudgingly accept that reality. But here’s another reality: If they had spent even $100,000 less and steered it to adding another psychiatrist or hotline workers, maybe that sucidie rate would drop to 19 a day — that’s still 19 veterans a day taking their own lives, but it’s also 365 veterans a year who are not leaving their loved ones in shattered pieces. That’s 365 veterans who can maybe find their groove in civilian life and truly offer some of what they have inside to the world.
I consider my role here as a facilitator of conversation more than someone who just offers opinions, but I’m sticking with just the opinion this week — we should all be disgraced by how our veterans are being neglected. This isn’t about charity. It’s about taking care of those who take care of us.