On Veterans Day, acknowledging our abandoned soldiers

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Veterans Day invites us to honor those risking their lives in the ongoing “war on terror.” Yet tragically many soldiers like SPC Cory Thomas survive combat only to find themselves abandoned by those who led them into war.

Cory joined the Army in 2007. He came home from Iraq in 2009 with a Purple Heart for shrapnel to the face and an Army diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Last year he was transferred to Fort Bragg with a limited supply of his PTSD medication. For weeks, he tried to get followup treatment at Bragg’s Robinson Behavioral Health Clinic. Instead of treating his PTSD, clinic staff simply changed his diagnoses to “adjustment disorder.”

Dissatisfied, Cory saw a civilian psychiatrist on his own who reaffirmed that Cory did, indeed, have “chronic and acute” PTSD, grounds for disability and medical retirement. But the Army never acknowledged the error and, in violation of its own regulations, discharged Cory for misconduct, claiming he was AWOL on days he’d been at the clinic seeking care.

Shockingly, Cory’s story is not unusual. Similar incidents are reported by others who call the national GI Rights Hotline, a private, free service to military members and their families that receives thousands of calls annually.

Elected officials talk about the importance of caring for those who serve our country in combat. But this political will is not backed by sufficient funding nor reflected at the command level. While the Army has been downsizing, cases like Cory’s are on the rise.

Combat soldiers returning with unseen wounds describe being ostracized and even castigated by their commands for showing “weakness.” Having lived through harrowing experiences, often surviving the loss of battle buddies and facing survivor’s guilt, soldiers find themselves alone, abandoned by those once sworn to care for them.

The Army health care system is overwhelmed and underfunded. Like Cory, soldiers face long delays in getting treatment, and diagnoses often under-represent or misrepresent their problems, paving the way for soldiers to lose critical benefits. Some health care providers even fail to take seriously suicidal or homicidal ideations.

Physical injuries and psychological wounds often impede combat veterans’ ability to function well in environments where previously they thrived. They have difficulty living up to company standards. Some turn to drugs and/or alcohol to cope when the medical system fails to address their needs.

Military law requires that soldiers be processed through medical channels if they have “an incapacitating physical or mental illness that was the direct or substantial contributing cause of the [mis]conduct.” But wounded soldiers returning from combat who fail to perform to company standards often find themselves facing discharge for their misconduct, with an other than honorable characterization of service that deprives them of most benefits, including medical care.

Sadly, combat veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other psychiatric conditions often find it difficult to advocate for themselves, even when their rights should be guaranteed under military law.

And while it is true that some soldiers wrongfully discharged can apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs for benefits and health care, the VA can’t award them0 medical retirement, which includes health care coverage for dependents and other privileges. In addition, vets may face delays of months or even a year before receiving benefits, which can worsen medical conditions and even become life-threatening.

Cory could be considered one of the “lucky” ones. Since his discharge from the Army, the VA has awarded him 100 percent disability with compensation. In addition to his PTSD, he is being treated for a host of other conditions ignored by the Army, including TBI and constructive bronchiolitis, a fatal lung disease caused by burn-pit exposure. He has appealed to the Board of Corrections for Military Records to upgrade his discharge to medical retirement, which would ensure medical coverage for his family in the years ahead.

No one who sacrificed so much for his country should have to fight so hard to recover.

Too many who have risked their lives in combat experience this same betrayal. One solution is simply to stop sending troops to war and to use the billions saved to address human needs here and abroad. If this country truly provided the resources and support our veterans needed, one wonders whether we could ever afford to fight another war.

At the very least, this Veterans Day, those who take the country into combat owe the troops the guarantee that they will be fully and completely cared for – without reservation – when they come home.

Lenore Yarger works for the Fayetteville nonprofit Quaker House as a counselor for the GI Rights Hotline.