Saluting our veterans is nice gesture, but it's hardly enough

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

As a nation, we seem to have a conflicted relationship with those who served and continue to serve in the military. Chances are good you may be taking care of some of these folks in your community.

At public events, we cheer loudly and recognize vets for services and sacrifices rendered. Rightfully so. Is there anything more stirring than when the National Anthem is played before Chicago Blackhawks hockey games? Tenor Jim Cornelison belting out the lyrics, a raucous crowd screaming wildly, current and former military personnel saluting the flag right there on the ice, next to the singer; it makes for an awe-inspiring spectacle. How anyone could take it in and not be moved is beyond me.

It's all fantastic, and any ounce of recognition we direct toward those in uniform is both welcome and overdue. But let's face it: These public displays of affection hardly mask the stink that permeates the lousy way we often treat those who have served.

Consider that more than 17,000 World War I veterans gathered in Washington in the spring and summer of 1932. What did this Bonus Expeditionary Force demand?

Nothing more than early cash-payment redemption of their service certificates. It's not hard to see why, as the nation's worst-ever Depression was in full swing, and many vets had been out of work for years. What they received instead was a clear-out raid.

More recently, there have been numerous reports of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals. By more recently, I mean at least since our troops were fighting in Vietnam.

This being an election year, VA bungling has, not surprisingly, regained political traction. So far it has led to a promise from the Oval Office that things will improve. We'll see.

But the shabby treatment is hardly limited to healthcare mismanagement. Go to any military base, and you are likely to be appalled by the housing and living conditions many of our military personnel must endure. In fact, more than $100 million worth of food stamps will be redeemed at U.S. military commissaries this year

And what of the people now returning from combat? If you don't think multiple tours don't take a traumatic psychological toll on all involved, think again.

It's reasonable to ask why this dichotomy exists in which we publicly applaud our military people, yet often seem indifferent to their daily struggles. One reason may be that we tend to see those in uniform as symbols, not fellow humans.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether compulsory military service for all is a good idea. But one side effect of our current situation is that most elected officials who decide to launch military strikes are safely insulated from the likelihood that they — or their loved ones — will be directly affected.

These days, the dirty work of combat often lands at the feet of those with few prospects beyond military service. And as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

So what's the right thing to do here? I wish I had the answer. At a minimum I would hope you give veterans in your community the best possible care, every day.

And with Memorial Day fast approaching, maybe we need to reconsider the de facto covenant that has emerged.

Perhaps it's time to start treating our veterans less like ceremonial accoutrements, and more like people who just happened to go a bit more above and beyond.

Cheering for vets at public venues is all well and good. But if that's where our gratitude ends, the praise is faint indeed.


John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.