Tomorrow I will help to commemorate Armed Forces Day inside Pennsylvania’s Graterford penitentiary with the veterans our nation left behind. It’s the 25th anniversary of the prison’s Vietnam Veterans Chapter, and I’ll be with fellow veterans I’ve come to know over the years, although not all are from Vietnam. Many of those imprisoned fought in the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s a long walk to the auditorium down the center corridor of the prison among the inmates. But I can only imagine how tough the walks were for these men when they went “outside the wire” in a foreign land every day for 12 months, not knowing if the loud sound they suddenly heard was a nearby exploding car or a suicide bomber bent on their destruction. Or how it felt when your next step in a minefield might set off a buried booby-trap, taking off part of you — or all of you. Then these men went back to do it again the next year, and then the next, doing it all over again and again, with every footstep, on every day.
The men I will visit are paying for having served our country and coming back alive. During Vietnam, this nation couldn’t spell post-traumatic stress disorder, never mind provide treatment for our veterans who bore it when they returned home. Is there any wonder why addiction to a substance that eased their pained memories became their safe harbor when our countrymen didn’t provide one?
It should surprise no one that we have a similar challenge today given that our government approved psychotropic drugs for more than 100,000 warriors to help them repeatedly re-deploy to our two recent wars, even though the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved many of these drugs for either PTSD or for those under the age of 25. Nor when both veteran and active-military hospitals delay and refuse to diagnose mental problems that might require treatment. Just scan the news of claims backlogs, hidden waiting lists and indolent VA health care employees.
Justice? Not from a Justice Department that would not prosecute the $2 trillion HSBC Bank for laundering Iranian terrorist funds because of the possible “collateral consequences” of bank withdrawals but that would prosecute a young veteran for carrying thousands in drug money as he dealt with the mental “collateral damage” of the war — alone.
What an ironic message for our military recruiters: The cost for someone fighting the war against terrorism is greater than the cost for supporting terrorism.
I’m concerned about how to keep our returned veterans from going into prison, but what about those who later get out?
President George W. Bush had it right when he launched a $300 million re-entry initiative because “America is the land of the second chances, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” But the initiative failed, for the same reason the VA has failed its men and women. Rather than pursuing evidence-based programs with accountability benchmarks and measurable results, too much of the program’s funding was put into the willing hands of those who were less than accountable to those who came out the gates of prison.
Those who serve our country are the real 1 percent — because less than 1 percent of our American families have had a loved one serve in our recent conflicts overseas. And while everyone seems to call for “taking care of our vets,” we as a nation have failed to do so. If we had, I would not be visiting Graterford prison tomorrow.
This, then, is a request to acknowledge that our nation has left our veterans behind — something no veteran would ever do in combat. And yet, would our veterans serve our country again?
In answer, I’ll watch with deep respect tomorrow as each of the incarcerated veterans is called up by name while other inmates softly hum the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then I’ll watch as a silent prison population rises as one to clap thunderously as the last prisoner strides up and turns, pride on his sorrowful face.
The answer is “yes.”
It’s just a shame that we all too often take advantage of that selflessness.
Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral, U.S. congressman and candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, is considering another run for the Senate in 2016.