S. E. Williams
With more than 1.9 million veterans living in the state, California is home to the largest veteran population in the nation.
This year, as the 2016 Presidential Election and Veteran’s Day occurred the same week, it reminded many–that America is still a nation at war. American soldiers are in harm’s way in Iraq; and in a more limited sense, in Afghanistan. Since 2001, more than 2.7 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan— many deployed more than once.
This Veterans Day, as the nation honors those who served not only in the two most recent wars but all the nation’s wars, citizens also reflect on the service and sacrifice of more than 970,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who live with some form of disability; as well as the hundreds of thousands of others living with scars who have not received disability status. When disabled veterans from other wars are included in this measure, the toll these wars have taken on the nation’s treasure is immense.
While veterans face many of the same health problems as the general population like heart disease, high blood pressure and musculoskeletal challenges, they also face several other physical issues that occur at high rates for veterans than in the civilian population.
For example, some 63 percent of veterans suffer from the most common traumatic injury—hearing impairment, followed by vision loss, orthopedic injuries, traumatic brain injury, burns, spinal cord injury, and amputation. In addition, more than five percent of the veterans experienced what is identified as polytrauma wounds. Polytrauma wounds are multiple, complex injuries that require very intensive therapy.
Veterans also experience higher rates of anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse than other citizens. Interestingly, PTSD, anxiety and depression all occur at much higher rates for women veterans than they do for either male veterans or civilian women—there are several theories as to why this is; but to date, no conclusive determinations.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a greater toll on veterans and their families than past wars according to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University—reality on the ground appears to bear-out that assessment.
The Institute stated, “In comparison to the civilian population, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are facing elevated rates of suicide and mental illness, drug and alcohol dependence, car crashes, and homelessness.” They also experience higher rates of divorce as well as homicide, child abuse, and child neglect the report stated.
California has the highest number of homeless veterans in the country with an estimated 50,000 living on the streets. The California Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 62 percent of homeless veterans have been diagnosed with both substance abuse issues and mental health problems.
America has continued to grapple with meeting the needs of its veterans. At all levels of government, the nation is working to resolve the many weak-spots in the county’s commitment to those who have and will continue to serve a grateful nation.
Problems in the veteran’s health care system are being addressed and continue to improve. In February 2015, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Act designed to address the military suicide rate and because the Inland Empire is a high-risk region for veterans making the transition from military to civilian life, the Loma Linda VA was tapped as a pilot site for this initiative.
Earlier this year, retiring California Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act in response to the alarmingly high rate of suicides among female veterans that are six times as likely as their civilian counterparts to commit suicide; male veterans are twice as likely as their civilian peers to take their own lives.
In addition to all these challenges faced by the nation’s veterans, thousands, including many in the inland region, were impacted by the sudden closures of “for profit colleges” where many attended using their veteran’s benefits.
Recently, many California veterans also learned they had fallen victim to a re-enlistment scam. It took intervention by the Department of Defense, Secretary Ash Carter, to ensure fair treatment of the California veterans who were struggling to repay bonuses they were given in error.
Both Riverside and San Bernardino County have teams of experts available to assist the region’s veterans. For information regarding services offered by the Riverside County Department of Veterans Services visit http://veteranservices.co.riverside.ca.us/opencms/; for the San Bernardino County Department of Veterans Affairs visit http://hs.sbcounty.gov/va/Pages/default.aspx.
To reach the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline call (800) 273-8255 and press one or text 838255.