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Carol Anne Costa: Rhode Island’s Veterans On The Edge

Thursday, May 09, 2013


The challenges for Rhode Island's veterans have never been greater. We can do better.

Some 22 veterans take their own lives each and every day in the United States. The latest report from the VA notes suicide is up for returning veterans and reveals another stark statistic; the rising number of aging Vietnam vets who are resorting to suicide is markedly up as well.

This is a terrible reality. Where is the outrage? Where is the fervor? The uptick in veterans' suicides should have us collectively worried and motivated, yet it seems the simple act of thanking uniformed military in public places has replaced what should be our active lobbying for funding and policies that address the issues for those who serve us. Let's put our money and efforts where our mouth is, let us give them much more than lip service. We must move our politicians in Washington and Rhode Island to push for funding, awareness, education and programs to combat these tragedies. Senator Juan Pichardo (D-Providence) has sponsored and co- sponsored several pieces of legislation and resolutions to address pressing veteran’s issues in Rhode Island and this is a good start.

What veterans do

Many of the most amazing people in my life are the men and women who put on the uniform of this nation in order to provide us all with a cover of freedom. They are often selfless, disciplined, and brave and in the last decade of what seems to be endless conflict, they are placed into incredibly dangerous and stressful situations over and over again. Situations which scare me to even think about; but they train, they work, they learn and they go. They go to liberate people, they go to depose brutal dictators, they go to build infrastructure, they go to construct schools and they go to provide humanitarian aid. They remain separated from family, home and friends. And, then they come home, and to be honest, sometimes in the case of our Vietnam vets, at least for a time, to an ungrateful nation.

It is no secret that returning vets and aging vets, particularly of the Vietnam War era face large obstacles. Among them is a huge backlog in the veteran’s benefits delivery and support systems, a meager job market, dwindling resources to help provide safe, affordable housing and many vets from Operation(s) Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom returning to find their own homes either foreclosed or deeply underwater and their families in tumult. Many of our aging Vietnam veterans are finding that skyrocketing rents and shrinking salaries and benefits are literally pricing them out of homes at a time in their golden years, which should be a much more relaxed lifestyle. When you add the well documented realty of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to these financial snares, the dismantling of the social safety net and the overall lagging economy, it appears to provide the ideal fuel to ignite the fuse of suicide. And, even a sincere, “thank you for your service” just doesn’t cut it in the war these folks face at home. We must engage on their behalf.

Who are our RI vets and what are their needs?

According to the 2012 report from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics NCVAS, Rhode Island veterans snapshot looks like this:

Total Veterans 71,457
Gulf War Vets 14,208
Vietnam War 23,878
Korean Conflict 9,284
WWII 6000

Homelessness is a big factor, as according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) there are currently 62,000 homeless vets and approximately 270 in Rhode Island. This population is plagued with physical and mental disabilities. The high cost of housing and the economic and job slump are all contributing factors to the rising rate as well. The impact of sequestration is also seeping into the mix. As public housing authorities, subsidized voucher programs and mental health resources endure huge cuts, the impact is felt in reduced availability of programs for elderly and aging veterans along with, returning vets who need safe, affordable and decent housing and mental health counseling. Weakening the social safety net, particularly for veterans, is devastating in human terms.

More than statistics

I have waded through the tables and stats; how they killed themselves, how many times they contemplated suicide, were they working, were they homeless, did their families break apart, did they get the mental health counseling they needed and all I come away with is a question; how can mere empirical data tell these stories? The answer is frankly, I do not know. I shake every time the sabers rattle in Congress, as I know full well it is someone’s father, mother, sibling, child, niece, nephew, grandchild or dear friend who will take up a post and defend this nation’s interests. As Syria and the Middle East become more unstable each day and redlines are drawn and redrawn it is our servicemen and women who will go. And then they will come back.

These suicide rates should move us all to evaluate the cost of war in human terms. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of this propensity to war and the trimmings:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

Was the human toll ever really calculated into the vast cost of the military industrial complex?

Help all of our veterans? What can we do?

To my dear departed Uncle, a U.S. Army Veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and a real working class guy used to go each week to the VA Hospital in Providence, I asked one day, “Uncle what do you do there?” He replied without hesitation, “Keep them company, play cards and talk.” He continued, “You know, these guys gave everything for this country and are now alone in the hospital, they deserve our attention and respect. And that’s why I go.” I knew at that very moment, not everything can be solved with only grand plans and big money. It takes citizenship, advocacy and a commitment to do the things that make people feel wanted, appreciated and valued.

If you know of a veteran who may need counseling, help, housing and support there are several good resources:

VA-Veteran resources

Veteran Crisis Line

Operation Stand Down RI

A public relations and community outreach specialist, Carol Anne Costa has experience in both the public and private sectors. She is the Chairwoman of the Scituate Democratic Town Committee and has extensive community affairs and public relations experience. She previously served in the Rhode Island Judiciary for nearly 17 years. Carol also enjoyed a successful development stint at the Diocese of Providence as Associate Director for Catholic Education and is currently a public housing manager for the Johnston Housing Authority. Her work has been published in several local outlets including: GOLOCALPROV, Valley Breeze, The Rhode Island Catholic, and Currents Magazine.   


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