Memorial Day: On Not Forgetting!

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I believe that laying a wreath for fallen soldiers on Memorial Day should not be a substitute for respecting the living veterans—many of who are suffering in our midst.

I sponsored a bill and a resolution in the Vermont House of Representatives this year to address my concern for Veterans. The crafting of the bill was prompted by conversations that I had with local veterans in Sunderland, Arlington and Manchester. I also spent afternoons last summer at the Veterans Home speaking with leadership and visiting the vets. I promised them that I would work to fund our Vermont Veterans Home for another year and made good on my promise. The resolution I proposed also received broad bi-partisan support. It called for our Congressional Delegation in Washington, D.C. to lobby their colleagues and advance an initiative whereby the Federal Government would pay for all the expenses incurred by all of the U.S. Veterans Homes across the country. Honoring fallen soldiers is important but I believe the United States should meet obligations to those veterans who are living that are not being adequately served. Our nation faced a crisis when the returning veterans from Vietnam came home. Presently, the U.S. military faces a mental health crisis of an even greater and more historic proportion. We currently have hundreds of thousands of combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Included in that number are thousands of Vermont Veterans. Until now our ability to help these veterans is woefully lacking. I believe we should fund a PTSD clinic at our Veterans Home and legislate a change that ensures that PTSD veteran care be one of our state priorities.

In the State House this biennium, we heard emotional testimony from combat veteran families. A member of the House, Rep. Tommy Walz spoke of the experience dealing with the suicide of his veteran son-in-law. Rep. Chip Trioano spoke stirringly of his thirty-year struggles with PTSD as a Vietnam Vet and the need for us all to be sensitized to the proud population of our veterans, many of whom suffer silently. Of all of the sessions on the floor of the House in the past two years none was as emotionally charged as what we heard on that one day.

It is estimated that between 20 to 30 veterans commit suicide each day. This equates to somewhere between 7,000- 10,000 deaths by suicide each year in the U. S. military. Two thirds of those veterans are over the age of 50. The reasons for these suicides are wide-ranging. But the consensus points out that even those who return from service mentally healthy and without injury face a tough transition, as many cannot find employment and struggle to adapt. Over 25% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the wars in 2003 remain unemployed. Many turn to alcohol and drugs to alleviate their pain. I have worked with many vulnerable populations for over forty years and believe that health care for our combat veterans should be a basic service provided in full by our Federal Government. There should be no waiting lists for health services including mental health services, which sadly, is inadequate to the needs presented. The U.S. should make good on its promise to service members, particularly those who are infirmed, aged, and perhaps most of all those who have recently returned from combat missions and are quietly suffering. Let us remember the 55,000 men and women Veterans living in our midst this Memorial Day and honor them by urging that the government supplies them with the help they need.

Steve Berry is Vermont State Representative for Bennington 4, Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate


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