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Editorial: Doing right by our veterans

Ten years ago this month, the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. Historians, policy-makers and citizens continue to debate the war’s legacy, but there should be no disagreement about one aspect of that conflict: the debt we owe as a nation to the soldiers who carried out the mission.

The truth, though, is that our country doesn’t always do as well it should by the soldiers who fight in our name. One result is that there are veterans, some of whom served decades ago, who still struggle with the aftermath of war.

An initiative announced last week by Gov. Deval Patrick addresses homelessness among veterans, one of the most intractable problems a returning soldier can face.

According to the 25-page report and plan released by the governor’s office, there are close to 1,200 homeless veterans on any given night in Massachusetts. Among them are some with serious disabilities, such as physical ailments, mental illness, substance abuse and chronic health conditions.

The effort to find and help these veterans is needed and overdue.

Helping them will require a targeted, concerted effort to reach vets who have lived on the margins, some of them for years. Providing safe, stable housing, in some cases with supported services, will require money for vouchers, rental assistance, and new or rehabilitated housing units.

The nonprofit group Soldier On continues working with partners in Northampton and beyond to create housing for veterans, including a project to create homes in which veterans can actually build equity.

Steven Connor, Northampton’s veterans services director, says the overall number of homeless of veterans in Massachusetts is declining, in part due to stepped up efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s encouraging. Connor also says most of the homeless veterans are Vietnam-era vets, ages 55 and over, many of whom were never treated for problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that back then went undiagnosed and untreated.

Today, we know much more about PTSD and other problems that can land a vet on the streets.

But knowing is just the first step: It’s imperative that those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan get the care they need, when they need it, so that decades from now, future governors aren’t launching programs to treat problems that have festered over time.

In recent days, members of the new generation of veterans have been speaking out, sometimes in anger and frustration. Their voices need to be heard.

Members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit organization active around the country, are criticizing the bureaucratic delays and red tape that they say ensnare many veterans waiting to hear about disability benefits and other issues.

\In some parts of the country, according to IAVA, veterans are waiting a year or more for answers about claims and appeals; the VA itself has called the long delays “unacceptable.” The word inexcusable comes to mind.

Whether it’s an aging veteran living on the streets or a younger veteran in need of treatment for PTSD — both deserve support from the country they served.

Related

Medical mission to Iraq plants seeds of hope for city woman

Monday, March 25, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — On the 10th anniversary of the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq, one city resident returned from a trip to the war-ravaged country with renewed hope for change. Claudia Lefko, a local activist and founder of the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, joined a delegation of American and Italian doctors and nurses who travelled to Baghdad for a collaboration …

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