Sunday, May 28, 2000

Veterans: We must remember them - and embrace them

By Gail E.B. Padilla
Guest columnist

Homer Crotty, 83, served in the Army Air Corps in WWII.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        “Would you write to Miss Hillary?” he asked.

        At that moment, the U.S. veteran sitting across from me at the picnic table did not know that I am a writer. He knew me as a patriotic stranger who saw the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) van and invited herself to the picnic.

        I had planned a solo memorial afternoon of writing. The previous day had marked one year since my dad's death. Dad had served in combat during World War II. He had never understood why God had spared his life when a fellow soldier jumped on a land mine about to explode. I understood Dad's dilemma. How could a merciful God permit such carnage and waste of human life?

        The Vietnam veteran I joined for lunch had a question, also. He wanted to know “how our country could act "cold' toward its veterans?”

Joseph Newbauer, 90 and blind, can't see his sergeant's stripes and medals.
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        My dad's question had an easy answer. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph offers forgiveness to his brothers who sold him into slavery. He said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

        I had no answers, however, for the penetrating, sincere, unflinching brown eyes staring into mine. Through their large intensity, I heard about bureaucratic rules that make our veterans jump too high, too slowly if their disability is not diagnosed within six months of honorable discharge from the military.

        This man's dismay about the shortage of Veteran's Administration nursing home beds caused my concern to burst. “Yes, I will write to Miss Hillary for you. What do you want to say?”

        His kind, polite letter to our First Lady did not mention all his worries. However, as I thought about the Memorial Day tradition I grew up with as a child, I knew I could ask hard questions. Why should those who have honored our citizenry, who have sacrificed for our freedom, not be honored by our country during their aged years? They deserve to enjoy the prosperity of the country whose economic strength they secured, or would have if they had seen combat during their years in the military. I believe in my heart, and gut, that anything less for veterans, especially disabled veterans, is selfishness on the part of the people who live in this country.

Bernhard Deters, 97
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        My grandmother created a family tradition honoring deceased veterans after the death of her husband, who had survived mustard gas during World War I. On Memorial Day, our family picked up “Patriotic Grandma” at her home. She handed me two bouquets of U.S. flags, as she urged me to handle them with care. She also gave my family artificial red poppies that she had purchased with her sacrificial donation to the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) post.

        Our next stop was the cemetery where our hero lay in peace. There, we watched in silence as Grandma placed an American flag into the ground next to her husband's grave. I did not understand the reason for the hush, but I prayed. She and my mother then placed flags at the graves of other relatives who had served our country during wartime. I had the privilege of decorating the graves of any other veterans buried nearby.

        My grandmother had the correct idea: We must remember our veterans on Memorial Day. What she did not understand is that we must honor, defend, and love our living veterans every day of the year. Nor did I comprehend the necessity until my conversation with the war veteran.

        So I contacted the National VFW office in Washington, D.C. The assistant director of veterans benefit policy, John McNeill, told me that disability pay is pretty low in comparison to, say, 30 years ago. He explained that disability pay is indexed like Social Security, but it does not alone allow for the prosperity that the rest of the country has enjoyed since the deaths and injuries of World War II veterans.

        According to Jim Jewell, assistant director of veterans' health policy, there is a severe shortage of nursing home beds. Some states have a worse shortage than others, he said. In November 1999, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that there is a 4,000-bed shortage in Ohio alone.

        The Veterans' Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act of 1999 mandates the VA to provide long-term care to veterans. The VA is required to bestow nursing home care to veterans who need it only for a service-connected disability. However, if they have a non-service-connected health problem, like dementia, their disability must be classified as 70 percent or higher to obtain long-term care. A service-connected disability means that it happened while in the military or that their time serving our country made it worse.

        This is the legislation; however, the practical matter is that our country has failed to make veterans, especially disabled veterans, a monetary urgency. Congress' attempt to honor and recognize our freedom fighters during their aged years must include the backing of the entire country.

        As individual citizens, as a country that enjoys liberty, we need to embrace all our veterans. We owe a debt to these courageous men and women. They have worked hard, under dangerous conditions, to secure and keep our national independence and freedom's lifestyle.

        Our veterans deserve higher disability pay. They also have earned the right to expect high-quality VA nursing home beds. Therefore, let us, every person who earns dollars or enjoys the benefits of our protected country, allow a redistribution of our income to those who provided the autonomy we enjoy.

        Gail E.B. Padilla of Cincinnati is a poet and writer.

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