Friday, December 08, 2023

The best way to honor those who didn’t make it home is to fight for those who did

by By Congressman RYAN ZINKE
| May 26, 2023 7:00 AM

Growing up I always knew summer was around the corner when my dad loaded us up and took us down to the Whitefish Memorial Day parade. I remember clear as day watching the different generations of soldiers march by, from the doughboys of WWI, followed by WWII and bookended with the forgotten men of the Korean War and lastly the young Vietnam War vets who just came home from the horrors across the world.

They all marched ahead of the grand marshal. Each group was easily distinguishable from the next in uniform, in age, and in demeanor.

I’ve studied the differences between each of those veteran groups, and now including my own. There are veins of similarities; a deep-seeded appreciation for freedom, commitment to country and to the guys or gals marching next to you. But on the other side of the coin, the experiences each group received back home couldn’t be more different.

WWI and WWII veterans were received as American heroes. Meanwhile America largely forgot the Korean War and many Vietnam veterans experienced open harassment and even segregation from society. They faced immense challenges integrating back into normalcy despite making the same sacrifices as the many soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines ahead of them.

But the complex issue that has come with welcoming modern veterans back has nothing to do with how appreciated they are, it is that they’re experiences aren’t understood.

In my day, special forces used to train for two or three deployments max, but now it isn’t rare to be sent on 14, 15 or even 16 tours. It has made integrating back into society for our troops not only a challenge, but nearly impossible.

The number of independent duty contractors is skyrocketing because of the addiction to an abnormal rush of adrenalin that gives them a feeling of safety that home doesn’t.

For many of us, Memorial Day comes with an empty chair because of a fallen hero. But each year, the number of empty chairs at Memorial Day is growing due to the battle that didn’t end when their tours did, a one with mental health.

During my 23 years as a Navy SEAL I commanded troops in combat and also had the responsibility of training thousands of future operators. Of the thousands of warriors I’ve worked with over the years and countless more post-retirement, I haven’t met one who didn’t know a fellow brother-in-arms who took their own lives due to their battle with mental health. The battle does not end just because deployment is over.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a resource millions of veterans depend on for help navigating their lives after service. But there is a consistent obstacle of space and availability many veterans don’t have the time to wait out.

The very program created to take care of our veterans should be the last obstacle standing in their way, but unfortunately that has become the reality with the VA – especially when it comes to mental health. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

We want veterans to be productive members of society, be confident, be pillars in the community, but it's hard to attain that goal if they’re struggling with issues that can't be addressed due to a lack of access to healthcare.

I’ve taken the lead in introducing bipartisan legislation with 12 of my colleagues, including every Navy SEAL in Congress to ensure the VA is granting veterans access to life-saving mental health care in their local communities.

The legislation streamlines veteran’s community-based care by allowing expedited residential healthcare referrals when the local VA is at capacity.

The bill also requires yearly tracking of referrals to be reported to Congress and requires any alterations the VA may seek to make to community care standards be made by Congress, not the department.

I have found the best way to honor the ones who never made it home is to protect those who did - what happens overseas is out of our control, but what we can do is take care of them once they land at home. It is time we start treating veterans’ hindered mental health with the same veracity and attention as a life threatening injury, because it is.

Ryan Zinke is the Congressman for Montana’s First District. He previously served as Secretary of the Interior and Congressman for Montana’s statewide district.