“While We’re at War, America’s at the Mall.”

This phrase was in common use as far back as 2007. Phil Klay, a Marine vet writing in The New York Times on April 14 this year, suggests that it might have been in use as early as 2002.

It’s true that we’re still in America’s longest-running war. And whether or not America is still at the mall, the point remains that our focus is not on the men and women who are fighting, nor on those who have returned from that war.

Klay says, “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention.”

I’ll say. News stories break, things get stirred up and then they fade, forgotten. I think of the backlog at the VA, the recognition of Traumatic Brain Injury, the changing leadership at the VA. All big stories until they were supplanted by the next sensational thing.

Meanwhile, men and women are still deploying, still getting injured, still trying to transition back to civilian life after military service.  Still looking for employment, housing, medical care, access to their benefits. And the only time we seem to turn our attention to them is when some big story breaks.

Take housing as an example. Los Angeles has the largest population of homeless veterans in the nation.  Our Outreach van finds them on the streets, under bridges, along riverbeds. Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) works with HUD to offer housing vouchers for homeless vets. A recent local push that made more vouchers available did not have the positive impact it promised. The reason? Slow processing time and a lack of landlords willing to accept them.  Vouchers were received, but many expired before they could be used. Safe to say we’re not making much progress on ending veteran homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Incidents like these reinforce the perception that the VA is not user-friendly, that promises are not kept. Our experience from our Lifeline for Vets suggests that similar circumstances exist in other states.  One mid-west state reported that the wait for VASH vouchers there is 2-3 years. You got that, right? Years.
Many veterans get caught in a negative feedback loop trying to access the medical care they need. By the way, we still have Vietnam war veterans who have not enrolled at the VA for their benefits.  That’s how long the perception has been out there. Some of the calls we receive on our Lifeline for Vets deal with qualifying veterans being turned away.

How can all this keep happening?

Because we’re not paying attention. Not for long enough to make a difference. Problems seem insurmountable. That sells news, and it lets us off the hook. We think, What can one person do against a problem that that huge? It’s harder, believe me, to speak up, get involved, and act from our values.

Let’s focus our attention and energy on addressing these problems and holding accountable the people we elected to solve them. That means raising our voices, volunteering, supporting organizations who serve veterans. I’ve been an advocate for veterans for over forty-five years. The National Veterans Foundation’s crisis hotline, Lifeline for Vets, has been available for vets of all wars and their families for over twenty years.  We’re still here. Regardless of who’s at the mall, the helm at the VA or in the White House.

We’re still here.  If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets number: 888.777.4443.

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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