The New York Times of May 28, 2011 brought to the attention of the American public the failure of our government to adequately attend to the medical problems of our soldiers who suffered war injuries, physical and mental. This has resulted in thousands of suicides among the returning soldiers. The Times reported on one veteran, William Hamilton, as follows:
“This month, the Department of Veterans Affairs informed the parents of William Hamilton, an Iraq war veteran, that it was not responsible for his death. Mr. Hamilton had been admitted nine times to a V.A. psychiatric ward in Palo Alto. He saw demon women and talked to a man he had killed in Iraq. His parents allege that the V.A. illegally turned away Mr. Hamilton – three days before he stepped in front of a train on May 16, 2010, at the age of 26. The agency denied the wrongful-death claim in a one-page letter: ‘The VA did not breach a legal duty,’ wrote Suzanne C. Will, the agency’s regional counsel in San Francisco. Mr. Hamilton’s death was recorded in an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem death file, which contains records for all veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the high rate of suicides and risky, sometimes-fatal behaviors. Records from that database, provided to The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the V.A. is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, of May 26, 2011 reported, “With veterans now accounting for one of every five suicides in the nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs is under pressure from both the courts and Congress to fix its mental-health services in an attempt to curb the death toll. ‘The suicide rate is out of control – it’s epidemic proportions right now,’ said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. ‘There are very few programs that are effective, and there’s a serious lack of national awareness.’ While the government keeps no official tally of veteran suicides, the VA last year said that veterans account for roughly 20 percent of the estimated 30,000 suicides annually in the United States.”
Every American civilian and soldier should be appalled that so many of those who served in our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan apparently have been so ill treated that, according to The Times, “On May 10, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco cited the V.A. for ‘unchecked incompetence’ and ordered an overhaul of how it provided health care and disability benefits.”
I am a veteran of World War II, honorably discharged in 1946 as a Sergeant, having served in the 104th Infantry Division, receiving the combat infantry badge and two battle stars. My suggestion is that President Obama appoint a commission to look into the providing of services to veterans immediately. Because of their history of service and bravery in the Vietnam War and service in so many ways to our country, I suggest the President consider appointing Senators John McCain and John Kerry as co-chairs.
I further suggest they consider recruiting the lawyers of this country through the many bar associations, to volunteer pro bono, to serve as advocates for any soldier whether remaining in the US armed forces or a veteran needing assistance, medical or otherwise, from the government, authorized by law and not receiving it in a timely way.
Those lawyer volunteers should be immunized by federal law from lawsuits by dissatisfied such clients. It is important to get appropriate medical help for those needing it, but also to try to stem their descent into alcohol and drug addiction. During the great civil rights crusade of 1964, registering black voters in the South, many lawyers, I was one, served pro bono in the South defending Southern and Northern black and white volunteers who sought to register black citizens so they could vote and were themselves assaulted and arrested, and required legal representation. Lawyers who participated remember the experience as one of the most positively impacting for them, in their whole lives.*****************
Many people will disparage the decision of the US Supreme Court for having directed California to open its prison doors and discharge more than 30,000 inmates unless within two years it expands the state''s prisons so as to be able to attend to the physical and mental health needs of its prisoners.
I had a similar situation in New York City in 1983 when I was Mayor when a Federal District Court judge, Morris Lasker, ordered the discharge of thousands of prisoners unless we provided 60 square feet of personal space to each prisoner. I said to no avail, “I didn’t have sixty square feet of personal space when I was in the army.” Hundreds of prisoners were released. We built our way out of the mess, with modular barracks on Rikers Island and prison ships in the East River.
The 5 to 4 majority, split along liberal-conservative lines, were right to do what they did – Judge Anthony M. Kennedy being the swing vote – because the state had been subject to lawsuits related to overcrowding for 21 years and had done nothing to address the situation which the court described as a violation of the 8th Amendment: cruel and unusual punishment. God bless the Supreme Court.