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July 4th Tales: Focus on Veterans' Needs

How every American can help reduce veterans' suffering

(First published July 1, 2013, at )

When considering United States Independence Day on July 4, some Americans will think kindly of military veterans, and others will not. To some extent, this depends on our politics, our attitudes toward war in general and toward particular wars, and our knowledge of history and sociology. Those who think kindly will say that the veterans of a particular war or wars or all wars in which Americans have fought have defended and protected the freedom of us all. Others will say that a particular war or wars have endangered the United States and even perhaps our freedom.

Regardless of our politics, though, consider that—as every veteran to whose story I have listened in the past dozen years has said—there is absolutely no way to know what war is really like before you go to war. In listening to these stories I have been struck by the integrity and sincerity of the beliefs of each veteran, whether or not their views of their war are the same as mine. Depending on the war, they may have been drafted; they may have enlisted variously because they had no other way to earn a decent living; they may have been promised financial or vocational benefits; they may have been assured they would not see combat; or, they may have hoped to travel and see the world. There may be some who signed on because they wanted to go kill people, but so far, I have not crossed paths with them.

Whether or not we believe it was true, the government when sending every servicemember to every war in U.S. history has told them that defending Americans' freedom is the reason it is risking their lives and sacrificing so many. How appalling, then, that regardless of political party, almost no one in the United States Congress has fought hard enough to ensure that veterans from all wars and their families will have their needs for community connection and understanding, as well as for health, education, employment, and housing adequately met. Indeed, many members of Congress have consistently cast their votes in ways that ensure the opposite.

A prevalent myth is that World War II veterans had a terrific GI Bill that provided generously for all of the above, but that is simply untrue. It is profoundly untrue for Black World War II veterans. My dear friend Sergeant Isaac Pope is a 95-year-old Black man who fought with my late father, Jerome A. Caplan, in an artillery unit during the Battle of the Bulge. Sgt. Pope entered the Army from Kinston, N.C., with minimal education and, like many of the Blacks from the South in their battery, had not been allowed to vote. (How ironic to think about this now, when just last week the U.S. Supreme Court set back voting rights for Blacks and Latinas/os so many decades.) As my father, the white, Jewish Captain of their unit, said about Sgt. Pope, "He was the sweetest guy you'd ever want to meet, and he was so smart and worked so hard that he rapidly became First Sergeant." Their unit was the first Black one "allowed" to go into combat in World War II, because they scored so high on their tests of logarithms, surveying equipment, and so on that their scores overrode the absurd claim that Blacks were cowardly and would run from battle. In fact, they won a Presidential Citation for Meritorious Service for their courage during the Bulge. Sgt. Pope returned to Kinston, where for decades he worked as a janitor for DuPont. The man is a national treasure. Picture a Black man in the Deep South in the decades after WWII who had the astonishing courage and commitment both to work with the NAACP on desegregation in Kinston and to work as a union organizer. Who among us has ever shown that kind of bravery and care in three such important realms and in the face of constant, life-threatening danger?

As I saw on a recent visit to Kinston, he is greatly beloved in his St. Augustus AME Zion Church. A member of the congregation told me, "Sgt. Pope is our heart." He is also, as my father said, smart as a whip, and he is thoughtful and perceptive in his commentary about historical and current politics and his observations about people. He has an exquisite singing voice (sings in the church choir) and plays the piano and organ by ear. Getting to know him and his loving family and friends has been a gift for me.

Sgt. Pope has diabetes, so the walks he used to take around his neighborhood were essential for his health, and he loved to take them. A long time ago, he had to stop. He told me it was not safe because of the gangs in his neighborhood. Recently, he submitted his first application to the VA for what had long been coming to him, and after the usual, unconscionable delay that characterizes the VA system, he was flatly turned down.

He soon had a heart attack and open-heart surgery, then moved to the beautiful, new North Carolina State Veterans Home in Kinston. But he gets nothing from the VA. To call this "scandalous" is a whopping understatement.

Another dear friend for whom I have tremendous respect recently retired from his remarkable career as a military leader. When I told him what happened to Sgt. Pope with the VA, he said, "I do get a check from the VA, and you know when I get it? At the very end of the month. Want to know why? Because if I die during the month, they don't have to pay it."

By no means is only the VA at fault. Congressional legislation is aimed to support veterans from the current wars has been puny. Often, it looks great but is riddled with problems. Let me describe just one of many examples.

Veterans enrolled in institutions of higher education receive some financial support for their studies but are required to take a certain number of courses, an impossible expectation for someone reeling from what they went through at war—or even being in the military for some years but not going into combat—and then trudging the difficult path of "readjusting" after returning home. Imagine trying to concentrate enough to take notes in one class, never mind to take a pop quiz or write one term paper, while images of your best buddy having been blown apart by an IED keep bursting through. Now imagine trying to do the work of even two courses in one semester. But if you don't meet the requirements, you lose the financial support for your education. And many women in particular have told me that they returned from Vietnam or Desert Storm, delayed higher education because of tending first to family responsibilities, then found that some years later when they wanted to finish college, the term of their benefits had expired.

Another example of the abysmal ways we treat veterans of all eras: In order to obtain many kinds of benefits, they are required to be diagnosed as mentally ill. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear veterans ask for these diagnoses, because they are suffering, and they have been told that mental health professionals are the best ones to help them, so they desperately want to have that care paid for. Too often, though, they suffer terrible harm directly as a result of being given those labels—about which they were never warned—ranging from losing custody of a child to having trouble getting a job or health insurance to losing the right to make decisions about their medical and legal affairs. For those who want to stay in the military, being so labeled can mean a halt to career advancement, including through the route of being denied security clearance. I have received an avalanche of emails from people who were traumatized by war, military sexual assault, or both but who—instead of being told that of course they feel devastated and offered reasonable support, were told that that emotional devastation is proof they are mentally ill and been diagnosed with personality or mood disorders. The implication of this is that they allegedly had the disorders before going into the service and that those are the causes of their upset. When a military or VA mental health professional declares that your emotional suffering was not due to something that happened while you were in the service, they will not provide the insurance coverage for the support and help that you deserve and that is far more likely to reduce your suffering than are the massive numbers of prescriptions for psychiatric drugs they hand out.

Regardless of our politics, it is our government who in the name of us all has sent people to war, and it has been too easy in our war-illiterate nation for most of us to stay unaware not only of how too many veterans are treated but even that they are human beings. I started The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project (, which consists simply of having a nonveteran listen—truly listen, not speak, not question, and certainly not judge—to whatever a veteran from any war wants to say. This has been healing for a great many veterans from all wars since WWII, and the nonveteran listeners have often described themselves as transformed by what they heard, by the discovery of the common humanity they share with the veteran. It is poignant that before doing the listening session, many listeners expected to have nothing in common with the veterans, proof that nonveterans too often fail to understand that veterans are human beings. It is also evidence that many nonveterans fail to be cognizant that, as Col. Anthony Henderson, head of the wonderful Warrior and Family Support Program in the Pentagon, said in our symposium at the Psychologists for Social Responsibility conference, "We veterans came from your communities. And we come back to your communities. And we want to be part of them again."

Col. (Ret.) David Sutherland, who started that Warrior and Family Support Program and now heads the important, community-oriented Staff Sgt. Donnie D. Dixon Center as part of Easter Seals, has described the "epidemic of disconnection" between veterans and nonveterans in this country. For July 4, I ask nonveterans to remember the humanity and the needs of veterans from all wars who too often live in excruciating isolation from the rest of us. Please consider doing your part to reduce this isolation by contacting us at, so that we can direct you to the very simple information about how to do a listening session with a veteran. It will be healing for the veteran and probably transformative for you. It is heartbreaking that Sgt. Pope, when participating in a Welcome Johnny and Jane Home listening session, said he had never before been given this kind of chance.

I have been trying for a couple of years to persuade members of Congress to pass a resolution to declare National Days of Listening to Veterans. Vietnam veteran Ted Engelmann made this suggestion after hearing about The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project, and the resolution I have proposed consists of the declaration that on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Veterans Day, every nonveteran should listen with respect and without judgment to the story of a veteran. Former Congressman Robert Filner (from California) introduced such a resolution, and Congressman Charles Rangel became a co-sponsor, but it went no further before that session of Congress ended. Despite expressions of great enthusiasm from the legislative aides of many members of Congress, including many on the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees, no one else in Congress has become an advocate for the proposal. Happily, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee in May issued such a proclamation in May, the first governor to do so. Subsequently, Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts submitted a proposal for the National Lieutenant Governors' Conference to pass a similar resolution at its meeting later this month. Let us hope that these wonderful steps will prove to be the first of many in individual states and in the U.S. Congress.

Another way to mark July 4th is to contact your members of Congress, members of your state legislature, and contact your governor and lieutenant governor, sending them the above information about the Rhode Island proclamation, and urging them to introduce and work for the passage of similar ones.

©2013 copyright by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved