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Vet Snub Shocks Families

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
July 18, 2010
The Daily Beast

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It was inauguration day for the nation's most modern facility for the treatment of active-duty soldiers and veterans suffering from brain injuries and psychological disorders—5,000 of them with families on hand. At the podium in Bethesda, Maryland, stood Arnold Fisher, the chief fundraiser for this precious center that may need to care for hundreds of thousands of victims, searching in vain for one White House official, one Cabinet officer, one member of the Joint Chiefs, one senator. He found none. And he asked again and again, “Where are they?”

Where were they? President Obama was in meetings and having a hamburger lunch with Russian President Medvedev. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also at these meetings, though not at the hamburger shop in Virginia. Michelle Obama, who has made caring for military families one of her top priorities, couldn't make it; she was said to have given her final "no" at the last minute. She was accompanying Mrs. Medvedev on a visit to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in D.C., where they watched a dance performance. Vice President Joe Biden also met with Russians and with Israelis. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent his deputy William Lynn III. All four Joint Chiefs sent their deputies. General Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, couldn't make it. Not one among the legions of pro- and antiwar hooting senators could find the time. Only two members of the House of Representatives found their way to the ceremony.

But there was Fisher at the podium. A corporal in the Korean War, Fisher is now a successful real-estate developer, builder, and philanthropist. He avoids confrontation and the limelight, but he could not suppress his dismay about the absences that inaugural day. “Here we are in the nation's capital, the seat of our government, the very people who decide your fate, the people who send you out to protect our freedoms. And yet, where are they?” he asked the attendees. “And while we appreciate that much of our military leadership is present, our government should be behind this effort,” he continued. “I know these are difficult times. I read newspapers. I see the news. And still, where are they? They call you out. You are injured. We are all here. Where are they?” According to a Rand study in 2008, approximately 300,000 soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, and 360,000 soldiers report having sustained a traumatic brain injury. The same study found that of the soldiers who seek treatment, only slightly more than half receive minimally adequate care. Rand is not Chicken Little and does not cry “the sky is falling,” unless it is. It has been over two years since that study was released, and the Army has just recorded its highest suicide rate on record, 32 during the month of June.

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