Walking into the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles was depressing. Having driven through the city in the middle of a lightning storm punctuated with hail and slowed by heavy traffic had me already on edge. But it wasn’t only the weather.
Whenever I find myself in the VA system, my blood pressure becomes hijacked to a different place, a different time. Seeing all those vets there for medical services and realizing just how vast the complex is brings home the real and ongoing cost of our nation’s wars. I hate waiting in the best of circumstances, but this wasn’t one of them. Having arrived 15 minutes early per instructions, I had already waited 45 minutes to see the doctor and still I sat.
I decided enough is enough. I went up to the reception desk and asked, “How much longer?” The receptionist was kind and helpful, but the wound was delivered when she spoke: “Only one doctor for the whole clinic will be seeing patients.” I was to be called next, she assured us. “Besides, the usual wait is three hours.” That is three hours after the appointed time! I fumed. She spoke again, this time wistfully: Maybe someday the VA would be adequately funded and enough doctors would be available to treat all the vets needing help in a timely manner.
Turning around I saw another Vietnam vet. His ponytail, blue jeans, sad eyes and self-imposed isolation labeled him as such. The vets from the first Gulf War — or even better, no war — were more animated talking to one another. The youngest vet, probably from the current wars scarring the Middle East, seemed uncomfortable, out of place and a bit scared. He resembled the mood — the character of a Vietnam vet.
Finally I was called in. On my way out I made sure to make eye contact with the young man and wished him luck. His gaze briefly rose off the floor and he said “thanks,” but without a smile, eyes darkened with waking nightmares. Slowly his stare drifted back down, probably to that other time, that other place. I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough.
Facts and impressions chased me into the dream world that night. Seeing the film The Hunger Games, a “fiction” film in which citizens allow their teen children to be taken by the Capitol for gladiator entertainment in a not-too-distant future, made me think how our society has become addicted to war. The reasons why are easy to see.
For most of us, war is a sideshow, not something personal that bleeds our souls. Only 1 percent of us are veterans of any kind, and even fewer are veterans of war. For others, it is amusement much like reality TV — something that can be turned on and turned off when we become bored. For still others, war is a tragedy best pushed aside, ignored, forgotten. After all, it isn’t our children, but others that must carry the burden and pay the price.
We have failed our sons and daughters and condemned them to a hell they cannot escape. According to the U.S. Army’s surgeon general, “More than 110,000 active-duty Army troops last year were taking prescribed antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs … .” Nearly 8 percent of active duty troops are on sedatives and 6 percent are on antidepressants. I’m sure the Marine Corps must have similar statistics.
This same report goes on to state that “about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope.” Think about what this is saying. We are doping up our children. We are using modern mood-altering drugs on our sons and daughters, and for what? Does anyone still think there is a valid reason for the ongoing war in Afghanistan? If these same statistics of workplace drug use were found here in America, it would be a scandal of epic proportion. But since this only affects the military, all we do is merely shake our heads, close our eyes and go on pretending.
Where are our democratically elected leaders on this? Who will state the obvious and ask the tough question we found ourselves asking in Vietnam: Who among us will be the last man to die in a war that has no meaning? How do we continue to inflict such pain and horror on the Marines and Army troops that they need heavy medications to cope? Who will tell them of the long wait years in the future when they try to access medical services in an underfunded VA system? (It takes on average 354 days for a V.A, disability claim to be adjudicated. One year! It took me maybe one hour to sign up when I did so. How many vets die waiting for compensation? This is the question asked in a lawsuit that the V.A. lost in the federal courts in Los Angeles.)
For many, it will already be too late. More active duty troops and Marines will kill themselves than will fall by bullets and/or bombs. And if the trajectory of the survivors of Vietnam is any road map, death by suicide, the witches’ chemical brew used in modern warfare and neglect and abandonment by society, will take an increasing toll.
I pick up the newspaper each morning fearing the worst. Fearing that our leaders have found us yet another war to send our sons and daughters to. Fearing that Washington, our Capitol, will continue to engage in a foreign policy that should be known as The Hunger Games. And sadly that we, citizens of a democratic state, will silently hand over our children like they did so in that “fiction.” We cower before power when asked to give up our most precious gift in this life. We protest more over higher taxes than the death of our children in uniform.
Reality and fiction stand on a razor blade. Welcome to the future — our present. Welcome to The Hunger Games. “And may the odds be forever in your favor.”
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.