Today, I am commemorating Armed Forces Day inside Pennsylvania’s Graterford Penitentiary with the veterans our nation left behind. It’s the 25th anniversary of the prison’s Vietnam Veterans Chapter, and I’m with fellow veterans I’ve come to know over the years, although not all are from Vietnam. Too many are imprisoned there from the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s a long walk to the auditorium down the center corridor of the prison among the inmates. But I can only imagine how tough the walks were for these men when they went “outside the wire” in a foreign land every day for twelve months, not knowing if the loud sound they suddenly heard was a nearby exploding car or a suicide bomber bent on their destruction. Or how it felt when your next step in a minefield might set off a buried booby-trap, taking off a part of you – or apart all of you. Then these men went back to do it again the next year, and then the next, doing it all over again and again, with every footstep, on every day.
The men I visit today are paying for having served our country, and physically surviving. During Vietnam, this nation couldn’t spell Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), never mind provide treatment for our veterans that bore it when they returned home. Is there any wonder why addiction to a substance that eased their pained memories became their safe harbor when our countrymen didn’t provide one?
And it should surprise no one that we have a similar challenge today when our government approved psychotropic drugs for over 100,000 warriors as they repeatedly re-deployed to our two recent wars, even though the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved many of these drugs for either PTSD or for those under the age of 25. Nor when both Veteran and active military hospitals delay and purposely non-diagnose their needed mental treatment. Just scan the news of claims backlogs, hidden waiting lists and indolent VA health care employees. Justice? Not from the Justice Department that would not prosecute the $2 trillion-dollar HSBC Bank for laundering Iranian terrorist funds because of the possible “collateral consequences” of bank withdrawals. But “justice” did prosecute a young veteran for carrying thousands in drug money as he dealt with the mental “collateral damage” of the war – alone. What an ironic message for our military recruiters: the cost for someone fighting the war of terror is greater than the cost for supporting terror.
I’m concerned about how to keep our returned veterans from going into prison; but what about those who might later get out? President George W. Bush had it right when he launched a $300 million re-entry initiative because, “America is the land of the second chances, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” But the initiative failed, for the same reason the VA has failed its men and women. Rather than pursuing evidence-based programs, with accountable benchmarks and measurable results, too much of the program’s funding was put into the willing hands of those who were less than accountable to those who came out the gates of prison.
Those that serve our country are its real 1% — because less than 1% of our American families had a loved one serve in our recent conflicts overseas. And while everyone seems to call for “taking care of our vets,” our nation has failed that plea – or else I would not be visiting Graterford Prison, today. Are we veterans perfect? No, but it’s hard to imagine many others better.
This, then, is a request to acknowledge that our nation has left our veterans behind – something no veteran would ever do in combat. And yet, would our veterans do it – service — again? In answer, I’ll watch with deep respect today as each of the incarcerated veterans is called up by name as several other inmates softly hum the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then I’ll watch as a silent prison population rises as one to clap thunderously as the last prisoner strides up and turns, pride on his sorrowful face. The answer is “yes;” it’s just a shame that our citizens take advantage of that selflessness.
Joe Sestak is a former Navy admiral and U.S. congressman (PA-07)