On Memorial Day, when we remember our fallen heroes, let’s not forget the plight of our surviving veterans during the coronavirus pandemic.
As Christians, we are called to serve “the least of these”—people in need—and many veterans have special needs during this time.
Veterans homes, like other nursing homes, have been the sites of some of the worst outbreaks in the country, including more than seventy deaths at a facility in New Jersey.
Unemployment among veterans rose to nearly 12 percent in April, and the economic situation has become so dire that House Democrats recently proposed setting up tent cities for homeless veterans in the parking lots of VA hospitals.
The emotional toll is more insidious.
Many combat veterans suffer from PTSD, and about seventeen veterans a day commit suicide in this country, even during normal times.
The effects of combat-related trauma run deep, down to the warrior’s very heart and soul. I know this from personal experience, having served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war after the war
When my last deployment ended, I left Afghanistan and the war. But, like many who have been in combat, I found that Afghanistan and the war hadn’t left me.
Everyone experiences the aftereffects of combat differently. There are, however, a few classic symptoms: anger, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and flashbacks. A sudden sound like a siren going off can send you into “mission mode,” with a pounding heartbeat and burst of adrenaline.
At one point or another, I suffered from all of these symptoms. Eventually, I got help, and there are some wonderful organizations that help veterans, but many veterans aren’t as fortunate as I was.
There aren’t enough people and systems to help, and veterans keep falling through the cracks.
Struggling with isolation
Today, as the founder of a Christian nonprofit called SOF Missions, I work with veterans.
They’re struggling to deal with social isolation and the disruption to their daily lives during the pandemic. They have trouble sleeping and miss social gatherings and physical activities. Many have lost jobs and are coping, unfortunately, by using drugs and alcohol.
Some of these veterans had already isolated themselves from their friends and family because it’s hard for them to communicate to non-veterans about combat experiences and post-combat struggles.
They want to belong to a community with a sense of camaraderie. It’s something they had in the service and something they want when they get out. But, during the pandemic, counseling sessions and support groups have had to move online. The VA and many nonprofits around the country have quickly changed the way they do business to meet this new reality, but veterans still miss the human touch.
The adjustment is particularly hard for older veterans who aren’t comfortable using a laptop or mobile device. Forced into isolation, they are even more likely to experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
Pray, call, help
In Florida, where I’m stationed, there are more than 1.5 million veterans.
SOF Missions has partnered with other nonprofits to distribute COVID Care Kits, including a face mask, gloves, a movie, popcorn, a gift card for a warm meal, and a handwritten letter of encouragement. Local groups deliver the kits while social distancing, and the veterans can reach out to us if they need to talk.
But many needs remain, and you can help.
Call vets you know, pray for them, or volunteer with a veterans’ group.
It’s time to give back to those who have given us so much.
Dr. Damon Friedman, a decorated veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, will soon retire from the military after a long career serving as a leader in special operations. He is the author of Igniting Movements, a new book that empowers leaders to make a difference in uncertain times. (The information and photographs herein do not imply official endorsement by the DoD or its components and are solely the expression of the author).