As you may know, for the last year or two I have been involved with an organization that provides scholarships, training, mentoring and job placement for severely wounded veterans. It is called the Wyakin Warrior Foundation (wyakin being a Native American term meaning “guardian spirit”).
Since traveling with cartoonists to visit the wounded troops over the last six years, I have come to know many wounded and injured men and women and have come away from each trip impressed with their spirit and desire to continue contributing. So I expected – even desired – to work with them as they reshaped their lives for their own good, and for the good of the country. Each has a unique perspective on life that we need in our future leaders.
I expected them to be motivated and ready to learn.
I had not expected there to so many of them. And I had not expected them to be as hard to find.
Around 20,000 troops have been seriously injured in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began shortly after 9/11. Many of them are now scattered around the country, living in towns where people are not used to seeing wounded veterans. Their citizens cannot fathom some of the things these young warriors have experienced, and often have little or no appreciation of the memories and ideas they carry with them.
Consequently, severely wounded and injured veterans drop out at twice the rate of any other veteran group. They don’t count in the unemployment statistics at all. And since there is no mechanism to notify the parent states that a veteran is coming home (i.e. no connection between federal and state), if a returning veteran does not check in with the local VA, no one knows they are there.
They just disappear.
I live in a lightly populated state, and the local Army Wounded Warrior representative is tracking around 80 combat wounded or injured veterans. The VA only knows of around 26 severely wounded veterans in the entire state (all services…not just Army). That leaves at least 54 of them – probably more – who would be invisible if not for the Army’s wounded warrior efforts.
We owe these men and women – those who have served and sacrificed for all of us – more than that. We, as a country, need to do better at tracking them. It is no wonder that one of the primary reasons given for personal crises among post-9/11 veterans is isolation.
If we can find them, we can help them do more with their lives. We can help them rebuild their skills and start contributing again.
We need them.
At the Western Governors’ Association annual convention last month, 22 Governors and their staffs decided to combine their efforts to petition the federal government to notify the states if a veteran is returning home for good. That simple act alone would have tremendous – and positive – implications for thousands of troops who have hung up their uniforms.
Until then, we need to continue to reach out to discover the heroes among us. If you know a severely wounded veteran who could use a hand up and not a hand out, tell me. At least we can get the conversation started again. Send me a note and I will personally contact them.