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Veterans and the looming ‘gray tsunami’



Nineteen years ago this morning, 19 al Qaeda members hijacked four passenger jetliners and smashed two of them into New York’s World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon and the fourth into a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Less than a month later, on Oct. 7, 2001, the United States military, on orders from President Bush, launched strikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.

Then in March 2003, the war in Iraq began. Remember later when President Bush acknowledged that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks? Regardless, our nation sent wave after wave of troops to fight what the Pentagon described as the “global war on terror,” or GWOT, or, as some would say, “the long war.”

Long war indeed. Today, 19 years after 9/11, over 1.9 million U.S. military members have been deployed, nearly 7,000 have died from combat operations and nearly 53,000 have been wounded.

In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops are also in another 80 or so other so-called GWOT hot spots too. We’re in locations you probably didn’t even know about.

If you were an 18-year-old soldier in Iraq in 2003, you are now 35 years old. Older military members, like me who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in those early years, are now approaching our 60s.

The consequences, of course, from waging a long war, are now coming to roost. First, there’s the financial bill and the debt incurred from ever more expensive military weaponry and personnel costs, and then there’s the price in human suffering. Suicide rates, depression, and wounds, both physical and unseen, are much higher among veterans than among civilians.

Although the total veteran population in the post-World War II and Vietnam era has been overall declining, the number of veterans with a service-connected disability has been on a sharp rise.

Simply enough, our nation has produced a lot of disabled veterans and those of us who will be 70 or older is expected to grow 30% in the next eight years.

With a higher incidence of chronic health conditions due to our military service, the demand for health care from our ranks is intense and is expected to further intensify. In fact, the number of veterans who have a service-connected disability rating higher than 70% is expected to double in just four years, hitting 1 million patients.

This perfect storm even has a name for it on Capitol Hill. It’s called “the gray tsunami.”

In testimony before Congress, congressional leaders and veteran advocacy groups say the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is ill prepared for the overwhelming population of veterans who will be seeking nursing home care. The VA, they say, simply can’t afford to care for all of us.

“With the trajectory the way that it is now, we are going to be in a crisis with regards to long-term institutionalized care,” said Teresa Boyd, the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations at the agency.

Plus, many veterans assume that they are eligible for long-term care benefits in the VA health care system, but that’s not the case. Veterans have to meet that 70% service connection bar in order to qualify.

The VA also covers a percentage of the cost of care in state veterans homes, though the waiting list can be long for facilities like the state-run Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, which this past spring suffered one of the worse outbreaks of COVID-19 in the nation, resulting in the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents.

What all of this means is that caring for veterans will be more and more the responsibility of family caregivers — often spouses, siblings, or children — who shoulder a financially, physically and emotionally taxing responsibility.

And while most of us don’t even want to think about a nursing home at this point in our lives, that day will come, for some of us sooner than later, when our families won’t be able to provide care for us at home.

Which is why the state’s promise to build a new and improved Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke is necessary and must be done with the full input of us veterans and our family members.

This week, the state’s architectural design team for a new Soldiers’ Home started to notify veteran groups and stakeholders like the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition of which I am a member. They want to meet with us and hear what we have to say about what want we want to see in a new home in Holyoke.

Veterans like me have a big wish list. We are, after all, a challenging group — a case mix that includes post-traumatic stress and other severe mental health conditions, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs, environmental health exposures and what providers say are “complex co-morbidities.”

We put the whole idea of whole health to a complete challenge.

Soon, very soon, we will be demanding and requiring things like adult day health care, respite care for our families, expanded outdoor and recreation programs for our mental health, and, when we get placed in a long-term care facility like the Soldiers’ Home, we want private rooms and private bathrooms and showers and we will need highly specialized care and physical therapy, social services and more.

For the past 19 years, dear citizen, you sent us to war. And if you think going to war was expensive — you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until you see the bill to take care of us. After all, you promised.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.



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