The scandal of returning soldiers

edward_passetto.jpg In the midst of juicier scandals, Edward Passetto’s apparent suicide went pretty well unnoticed (although I mentioned it on 5×8 yesterday) outside of the community in which he tried to live after returning from war.

And that’s too bad because if the nation wants a scandal, this one is it. Today, 22 veterans will take their own life. Tomorrow, 22 more will join them.

This is not new, and you’ve probably heard it before. A soldier returns from Afghanistan or Iraq, seeks help and gets stuck in a bureaucracy while politicians wear the flag pins, talk about supporting troops and do nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence of a growing problem.

Then the soldier kills himself.

This has been going on for years, now, and yet nothing seems to be changing. Passetto’s situation was particularly unique because he was a public advocate to solve the problem, willingly discussing the woe that he and thousands of other returning soldiers are experiencing alone.

His hometown newspaper — the Berkshire Eagle — let it rip in an editorial today:

In chronicling his unsuccessful two-year battle with the VA office in Boston to get his disabilityclaim resolved, Mr. Passetto undoubtedly wrote for many veterans across the county, state and country. In an open letter to President Obama that he apparently never sent but was posted by a friend on Facebook, he wrote of the months waiting for his claim to advance, time interrupted by occasional calls from the VA office telling him he would have to wait a few months longer. Although he was suffering from PTSD, haunted by his memories of the horrific helicopter accident, and dealing with mounting debt, joblessness and a family crisis, Mr. Passetto said in his letter to the president that he was told by the VA office he would “have to show proof of eviction or homelessness to qualify for extreme hardship consideration for your claim.”

While the specifics of Mr. Passetto’s dealings with the VA office are unknown, the generally shabby treatment of veterans since they began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. It has been chronicled on The Eagle’s editorial pages and throughout the media, most recently on CBS’ “Sixty Minutes” last Sunday. While the war hawks of Washington can find plenty of money for foreign military adventures, the deficit hawks of Washington (most of whom also are war hawks) cannot find the funds to help returning warriors, many afflicted with grievous physical and psychological ailments, heal and make the transition back to society. They should not have to wait until they hit rock bottom and are homeless to receive expedited treatment. What a great jobs program it would be to train and hire people (with veterans a priority) to work in VA offices to bring two-year-old claims like Mr. Passetto’s up to date and clear this indefensible backlog.

Suicides by military veterans have reached horrific proportions in recent years, and Mr. Passetto is the latest casualty. His sense that, as he wrote in the letter to the president, he was “abandoned by my own country” is undoubtedly shared by many veterans. It would honor Edward Passetto’s memory and the memory of other forgotten veterans if Americans insisted that their appointed and elected officials do justice by the soldiers who are too often abandoned once they set foot again on U.S. soil.

A man trying to solve the problem, profiled on 60 Minutes last week, asked a simple question: “How do we let that happen?”