On October 4, a small group of American veterans went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington, D.C., to talk to officials there about veteran suicides, veteran homelessness, veteran joblessness, and other veteran struggles. No one from the department would talk to them then.
Even the contingent of Homeland Security guards blocking the door on October 4 wouldn’t explain to the veterans why they couldn’t come in. So, they stayed on the sidewalk in front of 810 Vermont Avenue, a few hundred yards from the White House, where they established Occupy Dep’t of Veterans Affairs. They’ve been there ever since, even through Hurricane Sandy.
After more than a month, Veterans Affairs officials still have not talked to any of the diverse group. Instead, the VA has continued low level police harassment and frequent power washing of the sidewalk, threatening to arrest anyone who interfered with the activity. Trinity Church in New York City used similar tactics against Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Despite the length of this occupation in the nation’s capitol and the importance of the issues it raises, there has been almost no media coverage other than a couple of pieces by Cory V. Clark on OpEd News and scattered social media posts. Searches of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Democracy NOW all produced the same result – nothing (although Democracy NOW had a related veterans piece on November 12).
Medic in Vietnam, Still Trying to Heal People
In a USTREAM video by Occupy Eye on Common Dreams that was primarily about the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas, the coverage gets to the Veterans Affairs about 40 minutes in. There, a man who calls himself “Frosty,” a Vietnam veteran and former medic, with a bushy white beard, describes what it’s been like spending a month on the sidewalk trying to talk to the administration charged with looking after his welfare and that of his fellow vets from half a dozen American wars.
Articulate and friendly in demeanor, Frosty has intense things to say – for example, that the VA has only 19 suicide hotlines in the whole country, and that a caller reaches only a recording and is promised a callback within 24 hours. “The VA doesn’t care,” he says, noting that the suicide rate among veterans is currently estimated at 18 a day, and likely under-reported. This is demonstrated by an October report by the Department of Defense which cites 20 active-duty and 13 non-active-duty suicides in that month.
Like the other vets sharing the sidewalk in front of the VA, the first thing Frosty wants is to establish a veterans’ council that will have direct access to the VA, and to which the VA will have to be responsive. Some of the veterans are trying to work with Congress to make this happen, to improve VA response to all veterans’ issues, but especially suicides, homelessness, and joblessness.
Current estimates cited by vets are that there are more than 750,000 homeless veterans in the United States, about a quarter of the total U.S. homeless population of three million. The Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number much lower, based on a January 2011 survey. The VA Secretary, retired general Eric Shinseki has, according to the VA website, “announced the federal government’s goal to end Veteran homelessness by 2015.” In May 2011, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the VA’s “unchecked incompetence” was an unconstitutional denial of veterans’ benefits.
The current jobless rate for veterans aged 18-24 is 29%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
No One’s Talking About Depleted Uranium Poisoning, Yet
Not all veterans are supportive of Occupy the VA. The website “This Ain’t Hell, But you can see it from here” refers to the vets at the VA as “a bunch of scruffy-looking folks claiming to be veterans,” then misrepresents why they’re there. Among the mostly hostile comments is this one from November 6 (which was immediately attacked):
“I was there just yesterday, and I have to say, those scruffy people are Occupiers, they want a different world, and there is nothing wrong with that. they are supporting those that are standing up for our veterans. To put them down is a symptom of what is wrong with this country. Didn’t we ignore our veterans when they were in Vietnam, and did not learn a lesson. They are not getting their benefits, because of a new computer program, and the vets are 900,000 behind, and are waiting a year or more for those benefits. 18 soldiers commit suicide a day because of no mental health treatment. Wake up, stop criticizing people who are standing up instead of sitting at a computer. By the way my husband died of Agent Orange at age 47, my neighbor 29 Afghan vet shot himself in the head, so don’t put down those standing up. Shame on you.”
Veterans Affairs has been a troubled agency for decades now, sometimes better, sometimes worse, rarely adequate to meet the need. After Vietnam the agency was in denial about Agent Orange poisoning the troops and Vietnamese alike. Later it took a decade or more for the agency to accept the reality of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Today, only Frosty is talking about depleted uranium poisoning the troops, Iraqis, Afghanis, and people anywhere else the military has used it.