May is "National Military Appreciation Month." Congress first designated May as National Military Appreciation Month in 1999, thanks to the efforts of Senator John McCain and others in Congress, working with more than 50 veteran service organizations to make it happen. It's a month full of events recognizing and commemorating our military, culminating with Armed Forces Day on May 21 and Memorial Day on May 30.
It was formed with a simple idea in mind — to give us, as a nation, ample time to honor, remember, and recognize those who have served and those now serving our country. As a former Airman First Class in the United States Air Force, like many veterans in America, my military experience played an important part in instilling in me a sense of character and discipline that has served me throughout my life. During my career, I have always tried to acknowledge the debt I owe to this experience, visiting soldiers at military installations and in America's veteran hospitals whenever I can. In 2007, I was given the humbling privilege of being made an honorary member of the United States Marine Corps in recognition of my visits to troops during the Iraq War.
In the many roles I have played in my acting career as military figures, I have simply drawn upon the acts of courage, large and small, I have seen in the men and women with whom I served, and the countless others I met or have come to know through the years. I welcome this opportunity to salute the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
As stated in a message posted on military.com from Deborah Mullen, wife of Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our military men and women and their families do so much and sacrifice so much to take care of America. This [month] is about doing everything we can together to take care of them, not just in April or May, but year round.
To me this means that, with the praise, there must also be a renewed effort to not only find avenues for appreciation but for action. Things are much different today than the time of my service. It's estimated that less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces. During World War II, for example, more than 12 percent of the population served in the armed forces. The civilian-military divide continues to widen in this country as citizens with direct contact with everyday military life continue to thin in ranks. The good people of our country want to help, but are distanced from the stress and challenges faced by today's military families — a burden, says Mrs. Mullen, most military families bear quietly on their own.
As I reported in March, of combat veterans returning home after serving our country, as many as 30 percent struggle with mental health issues whose symptoms often worsen once they leave the structure and comradeship of military life and hospital treatment to begin reintegration back into civilian life. For these brave men and women, their mission for our country has been completed, but as to our mission as a nation, it is far from over. In exchange for their service and sacrifice, the covenant this nation has entered with these men and women is to heal, restore and reinstate them to their proper place in our society.
At least one recent report shows we continue to fail at meeting this responsibility. It reveals that, in response to the growing needs of veterans returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with aging Vietnam veterans needing more health care, employees at 40 Veterans Administration medical facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico have instead regularly taken to falsifying veteran wait times; in effect "zeroing" them out. In some cases, investigators found manipulation had been going on for as long as a decade, according to USA Today, which initiated the probe. More than 480,000 veterans were waiting more than 30 days for an appointment as of March 15, according to public VA data obtained by USA Today.
This apparently is not the first time the VA has said it would fix problems with appointment scheduling. In 2005, the inspector general found that VA schedulers were improperly booking appointments and that the wait lists were being underestimated for as many as 10,000 veterans. After initiating a "national education plan" for schedulers and supervisors, in 2010, VA officials discovered schedulers were using "gaming strategies" to falsify wait times to meet their performance targets. Schedulers were required to undergo training, yet again.
As recently as October, the Government Accountability Office said the VA's wait-time system still is prone to scheduler error and produces unreliable data. According to David Shulkin, who took over as undersecretary for health at the VA in June, in addition to the actions the agency has already taken to deal with the problem, he is planning to entirely overhaul the way the VA measures wait times and ensures veterans get care when they need it.
Meanwhile, those who need treatment must wait in line. As mentioned in March, there is talk of the need to create additional treatment centers across the country that would offer combat veterans a pilot program of alternative mental-health treatment and pain management. The need for such programs was pointed out by a recent study by the Federal Institute of Medicine that suggests that the Defense Department's PTSD management program and VA's program to screen, diagnose or treat PTSD are not using a "best practices" approach.
The month of May presents many opportunities for engagement on the challenges and needs of military service members while strengthening the connections between communities and our military. It's an opportunity to help many military families where help is needed the most — in their transition back to their communities and back to civilian life. Let's hope the dialogue in the month ahead leads to getting us moving in the right direction.
May is National Military Appreciation Month. God bless all who serve or have served our country.
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Photo credit: Ryan McDonough