FT. LEWIS, WASH. — A sniper shot Sgt. Joe Baumann on a Baghdad street in April 2005. The AK-47 round ripped through his midsection, ricocheted off his Kevlar vest and shredded his abdomen.
The bullet also ignited tracer rounds in the magazine on his belt, setting Baumann on fire.
Almost two years later, the 22-year-old California National Guard soldier from Petaluma, walks with a cane, suffers from back problems and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps him from sleeping and holding a job.
These are times when we sacrifice the lives of servicemembers in ill-conceived, needless wars. Then we cheapen those sacrifices with trite, ostentatious slogans and media events that purport to "support the troops." But what happens when Sgt. Baumann returns home after his ordeal in Iraq?
The question pending before a military review board ... is whether to grant Baumann a military disability pension and healthcare or simply cut him an $8,000 check for his troubles. ...
In a preliminary ruling last month, the three-officer Physical Evaluation Board that is reviewing Baumann's case decided for the severance check, rating his disability at only 20% and characterizing his post-traumatic stress disorder as "anxiety disorder and depression."
If he accepted the $8,000, Baumann still would be eligible to apply for Veterans Affairs disability benefits. But VA benefits do not include retirement pay, family healthcare, and military post exchange and commissary privileges. In what many soldiers regard as the ultimate Catch-22, if he were accepted by the VA, he would have to pay the Army's $8,000 back.
Next time you encounter that "Support Our Troops" slogan, ask yourself what it really means. Who are our troops? Are they the young, inspiring, whole-bodied youth who make for good campaign ads and touching moments of television? Or are they also the mangled, broken people who return from these exercises in folly -- the ones who aren't so easy to make eye contact with?
Stories like these, which deal with the federal government's bureaucratic masturbation or the even more horrific conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center, too often serve as the other bookend to a soldier's story. The bands play and the flags wave when we send our men and women off to kill, but our dead or wounded too often come home to coldness and silence.
And there's certainly precedence for what happens to the veterans who come home broken and then fall through the cracks. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans:
The VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men ... has put on a uniform and served this country. According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Urban Institute, 1999), veterans account for 23% of all homeless people in America.
When I lived in Cleveland, my ex-wife was a case worker at a facility for homeless veterans. Almost all of the vets had addiction or mental health problems, and many of them had chosen to make mistakes that helped lead them to that facility. But there's little question that many of them developed their problems during the course of their military service. And there's no question that the military failed to adequately assist these folks after their discharges.
There are valid criticisms against the concept of serving in the military and fighting wars. There hasn't been a draft in decades; all the members of our military are volunteers. But there's no question that a government that can design a system to efficiently conquer lands and kill thousands of people has a fundamental moral responsibility to design and execute an equally efficient system to care for the people who volunteer for the fight.