Commentary

Saunders: Don't just thank veterans - do something to help them

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2014 

Yeah, it was a reflexive, automatic response – one for which I apologized – but it was also heartfelt.

“Thank you for your service,” I’d told National Guard veteran Boyd Jones at the end of an interview.

“That needs to stop,” Jones said testily.

Say what?

“That needs to stop. Thanking us for our service doesn’t weigh as much as a feather,” he said.

He was, of course, right. Thanking veterans such as Jones for their service to this country is often mere lip service and doesn’t help them find jobs, give them access to proper treatment or shorten the sometimes criminally long waiting periods required for them to get it.

‘An all-day thing’

Jones, 67, told me that when he has to go to the Durham VA Medical Center, “I can count on waiting four, five hours” just to be seen. “I can count on it being an all-day thing. All the veterans can.”

Ask Jones how long he served, and he’ll proudly tell you “21 years, 2 months, 12 days.” He has been diagnosed with PTSD. Who wouldn’t, after digging up land mines in the National Guard?

I reached him by phone at his Durham home, moments after he’d watched President Barack Obama decrying the alleged abuses at VA hospitals in Phoenix and other cities. What did he think of the president’s promise to hold accountable anyone responsible for denying veterans timely service?

“Great,” he said. “Great, but late. Man, this stuff has been going on for over 100 years.”

Captain Newborn said the same thing when I spoke with him earlier in the day. “The veterans have known all along that the problem doesn’t lie at the top of the VA. They implement these things and want them to be carried out.”

Newborn, executive director of the Next Level Veterans Outreach program in Durham, said, “The problems lie all over the country, locally, with the VA medical centers. There’s a certain amount of arrogance that exists within those centers. You see people with this godlike syndrome like, ‘I can affect your life.’

“A lot of times, those people act like the benefits and services they’re providing to the veterans are their services, but they’re not. They’re the services of the U.S. government.”

Speaking of not weighing as much as a feather, want to know what else doesn’t?

That jive resolution the North Carolina legislature passed this week “honoring” veterans for their service. The resolution wasn’t an honor: It was a mockery. Anybody can walk around wearing flag pins in their lapels and praising soldiers when it doesn’t cost anything, but will it help veterans?

‘Whoop-de-doo’

“It’s just words,” said Newborn, who’s been advocating for veterans for several years and whose Holloway Street center has been visited by more than 1,000 veterans since it opened two years ago. They come to receive help from trained staff and to enjoy the company of people who’ve been through the same things they’ve been through.

“I can’t think of a single veteran that resolution is going to help,” Newborn said. “Whoop-de-doo. If they want to help, they can pass legislation that allows veterans to go to four-year colleges” and that creates jobs and affordable housing, among other things.

We know any legislation requiring a financial commitment to veterans would never pass – unanimously, magnanimously or anonymously.

If you want to do something far more substantive than that feel-good resolution, go to the Hayti Heritage Center on Sunday at 6 p.m. and check out talented veterans in a “Showtime at the Apollo”-like talent show. The winner of the 16-week competition is actually guaranteed a tryout for the world-famous show in New York. Proceeds go to support Next Level Veterans Outreach.

Helping the veterans who are still here is a great way to memorialize those who no longer are.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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