A few months ago in the park I met a man in his 60s. With limping gait, he was supporting his weak, malnourished body on a dirty shopping cart filled with bags and bottles. I noticed his sad, kind eyes as he smiled at me. Then he started telling me his heart-wrenching story. “I am going to die soon. I have HIV. I have nothing left,” he said as tears were filling his eyes. “I was raped when I was in the army… and that was the end of my life,” he continued.
I immediately felt sick to my stomach from the personal grief of this humble man. My heart was shattered. I felt overwhelming compassion for this veteran’s life tragedy. I was shocked and speechless.
How many more tragedies like this one are out there? What is happening in our society that claims justice and equality for everyone? Why are the ones who sacrificed their lives to serve our country and its people having to end their lives on the street?
There are over 18 million military veterans in the United States. Many of them experience mental health disorders, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury at disproportionate rates compared to civilians. VeOKterans comprise one of the largest population groups at risk for suicide. A staggering 18 to 22 American veterans commit suicide daily.
Being unique, American veterans face multiple health-related challenges. One in every three veteran patients is diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Combat fatigue makes them feel depressed, isolated, and helpless. They lose trust in people. Many veterans start misusing alcohol and illicit drugs. There is no doubt that depression and substance use disorders are responsible for the shocking suicide rate among the veterans.
Over 50,000 American veterans are homeless. That is over 12% of homeless adult population. More than half of homeless veterans have disabilities and mental illness; and 70% of homeless veterans have substance-use disorders. They struggle to find a job or receive adequate education due to military physical and mental trauma. Housing and employment opportunities should be one of the top priorities for homeless veterans.
With the Veterans Health Administration being the largest healthcare delivery system in the country, we still see the vulnerability and under-serving of veterans. Unfortunately, not all veterans are eligible to receive timely healthcare at VA facilities.
The priority system the VA uses is based on the presence of service-related disability or low income. Less than half the current total veteran population utilize the VA health care system. Others use civilian medical care facilities while remaining on the waiting list to see a healthcare provider at a VA clinic. While receiving health care at a civilian medical care facility, veterans are not being assessed for veteran-specific health issues, social reintegration problems, and suicide- or substance abuse risks. We “fix” physical problems, but often fail to go further and offer a so badly needed helping hand to prevent homelessness, refer to a mental health program or substance abuse recovery center.
Recently we have seen emergence of medical-legal partnerships, with the goal to reduce homelessness and improve overall health care for veterans. One of these centers is located in West Haven. With lawyers and support staff, these centers are geared at addressing veterans’ health-harming social needs.
This is just a drop in a bucket of a shocking magnitude of health and social issues that veterans face. I think we need to enhance health care professional awareness of the veteran population. Health care facilities should develop veteran-specific screening tools to recognize and monitor potential social and health-related risks that a veteran patient may be experiencing. As soon as these issues are identified, a veteran patient should immediately be referred to a VA clinic for follow-up. A case worker should be assigned to every veteran patient to monitor adherence to treatment and provide the invaluable support to cope with military-related stressors.
Federal government and local authorities should create a meticulous system to monitor well-being and quality of life of every single veteran. We should take responsibility to mitigate the risks of health- and mental illness progression in the veteran population. We have to prevent homelessness among veterans and help them remain valued members of the society.
With Veterans Day approaching, I would like to appeal to all of us: Let’s open our hearts and souls to protect the veterans who defended us. Let’s keep their hearts beating so that our hearts would not stop beating!
Evgeniya Brokin lives in Newington.