Wisconsin Veterans need our help. As our country and state temporarily shift their focus to honor the sacrifices of the men and women who served this Veterans Day, the moment also lays bare glaring shortfalls in actual commitments to our veterans.
I am an Army veteran of 36 years and have been active in the Wisconsin American Legion for 17. Much has changed over those years in the veterans' community, in fact, the community itself has changed. We have a new, younger generation of veterans who have served in conflicts since the attack on the World Trade Center and who have a unique set of post-conflict challenges.
All wars have their heroes, but they also produce broken souls and bodies. What we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder is at an all-time high, as is massive abuse (over prescription) of pain-relieving opioids. Suicide among our veterans is at an alarming rate — 20 per day, which is more than 7,300 a year. More have been lost to suicide than to actual battle conflict. This should concern all who profess to care about veterans, their families and the specialized health care they deserve.
Every day that I wake as the Wisconsin American Legion state commander I ask myself, "am I — are we — doing enough?" No. We need to get more serious and fight harder for the veterans that are not able to fight.
Well-meaning Wisconsin legislative leaders, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and the administrators at state-run health care facilities need to ask themselves the same question. Are we really doing the best for our state veterans and their families? The solutions are complex, but they start with a heartfelt commitment to our veterans' community. At the Wisconsin American Legion, we need to do a better job of articulating how we are fighting for this new generation, what services we can provide and where veterans can turn for effective health care treatment and job opportunities.
Money doesn't cure all ills or solve all problems, but adequately funding those programs that address veteran homelessness, drug addiction, suicide and job opportunities should be an imperative. Debate over what represents the most effective approach is valid, but let us not get bogged down to the degree that we continue to lose our warriors who have survived war. They made it home. They deserve not only our respect and gratitude, but quality services as well. Our veterans deserve better.
Caring for veterans is not a partisan issue. There are those in the Legislature and the WDVA who have accused the Wisconsin American Legion of "getting too political." This is easy and let me be clear, the Legion, both at the state level and nationally, will continue to aggressively advocate as we lose veterans to neglect, institutional drug dealing, and ultimately, suicide. It matters little to us whether you have an "R" or a "D" by your name. The 100-year mission of the American Legion is crystal clear — we fight for veterans and their families.
Saturday is Veterans Day and we need to be sure that once the political speeches, hometown parades and news media coverage end that we still stand for veteran's care. No more empty symbolism and flag waving. Let's unify and get to work.
This Veterans Day ask yourselves, "are we doing enough for veterans?" No, we are not. That must change and that change has to start today.
Laurel Clewell is state commander of the Wisconsin American Legion and an Army veteran.