A Not-So-Festive Fourth

Amidst the fireworks and parades, many veterans struggle to access services

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U.S. Marine veteran of the Iraq war Mike Lally walks through the main entrance of a veterans homeless shelter.

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A landscape marked by parades, fireworks, barbecues, picnics, concerts, baseball games, ceremonies and political speeches is the traditional backdrop for the Fourth of July holiday observed in the United States, which commemorates the enactment of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. But, tragically, some of our veterans are still waiting for independence to arrive in the form of benefits, jobs and relief from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or even traumatic brain injury.

Rather than being able to enjoy the festivities of Independence Day, many veterans are ensnared in perpetual frustration, having still not received benefits after waiting an average of 273 days. Moreover, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, as a result of poverty, the absence of support networks and bleak living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing, nearly 1.4 million veterans are on the brink of homelessness. The National Coalition for Homelessness has reported that an estimated one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has worn the uniform and served our nation.

Some reports indicate that 45 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, many afflicted with PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD affects an estimated 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.

What's more, for the past 12 years, on average, 18 to 22 veterans a day die of suicide according to the Veterans Health Administration. While there have been a myriad of initiatives launched to transform services for veterans, according to Department of Veterans Affairs reports, the total number of benefit claims awaiting adjudication has topped 900,000 this year. 

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So while the signatories of the Declaration of Independence confidently declared that all are "created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the quest for independence and happiness for many veterans has been illusive. But there is hope with a plethora of veterans' initiatives in play. There are billions of dollars in tuition, housing and stipends for student veterans pursuing higher education, a long-term plan to end veteran homelessness, appropriations to strengthen veterans' health programs and a veterans' national suicide prevention hotline.

The most important thing a veteran can learn to do in life is to reframe negative periods of time and the present state of things. So, if you cross paths with a veteran this Independence Day, give him or her a hug or a firm handshake, because chances are he or she could use a healthy expression of gratitude!

Harry Croft, MD is a renowned psychiatrist who has seen 7,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD and Co-author of the book "I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall: Managing Combat Stress and PTSD."  www.mybacktothewall.com.

Sydney Savion, EdD, is a retired military officer, applied behavioral scientist and author of the book "Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture." www.camouflagetopinstripes.com.