Betrayal Beyond Belief: Our Failure to Care for Veterans

Ceramic Poppies
Ceramic Poppies “Pour Like Blood” from the Tower of London at the memorial honoring the soldiers of WWI.

AJC November Newsletter Article

This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of World War I (1914–1918), our annual observance of Veteran’s Day (formerly Armistice Day, honoring the signing of a cease fire that marked the beginning of the end for “The War to End All Wars”) takes on special significance. I wouldn’t have entered the rabbinate if I didn’t believe in the importance of symbolic leadership. Gathering together to honor the dead through poetry and prayer, speeches and songs, the firing of rifles and frightful moments of silence are part of the debt we owe to the sacrifice of others. But, part, by definition, means that there is much more to do. Symbolic leadership, symbolic gatherings, symbolic acts are only authentic, meaningful, and constructive if they take place within a greater context where much more is being done. Therein lies the problem. Medals and citations are reminders of our values, not the fulfillment of them. We are passing the test of symbolic leadership with flying colors, but we are failing miserably at the test of fulfilling our obligations to those who serve. 

Evidence of this failure is overwhelming. Mental health care to veterans is so utterly inadequate that 22 of them commit suicide every single day; 1.5 of these are in age 35 and under and, in most cases, these are veterans served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Over the course of a single year that amounts to 535 young veterans succumbing to depression and despair. The unemployment rate among veterans 18–24 years of age is 21%. How is it that you can serve your country and be unable to find a job? Which would you rather have: a shiny medal or a steady means of income? The rate of homeless among veterans is 23%. How can one of the wealthiest countries in the world leave thousands of those who served without a roof over their head? The health care that we offer veterans is so ineffective and inadequate that investigations, hearings, and overhauls of VA facilities have outraged and embarrassed our last two presidents. 

Embarrassment and outrage, however, are meaningful only if we act to address their source. My father and his father before him served as physicians at VA hospitals (my dad on a part-time basis and my grandfather full time). I know that our country is capable of doing what is right. I know that we are capable of finding qualified doctors and nurses to do the job. Putting our money where our mouth is on this issue is long overdue. Our failure to provide basic support services to our veterans is not just an embarrassment and an outrage; it’s a betrayal of trust, loyalty, and conscience. And if a moral argument isn’t enough to convince our elected officials that this crisis needs to be met, then perhaps they should consider the public relations disaster it has created and the recruiting and retention consequences that go along with it. Or put it this way: this failure and betrayal is ultimately a threat to national security because people are not going to willingly enlist in the military of a nation that breaks its promises. Which argument our leaders find most compelling is up to them. Making the argument, and holding them accountable, is up to us. 

Torah teaches us that the pursuit of peace and justice are essential and urgent mitzvot. Part of making peace, part of pursuing justice, is meeting our obligations to those who fight our wars. 

Straight From The Heart,


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