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Our View: Time to serve vets in ways they want

With Veterans Day on Friday, who do you think of when you hear the word veteran? Your son, neighbor, your wife or grandpa?

To meet a local group of vets means being in a room with mostly men north of age 70. On Sunday, we joined vets for the least expensive – and quite good – breakfast in Durango at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031. A donation jar papered in American flags stood near the entrance. Friends squeezed around white plastic tables, catching up over green chile and eggs. Grand-babies upstaged conversations. These vets, most from the Vietnam War, have this community, this place to gather.

But where do the younger vets go?

We can’t say. But they’re out there. Having been engaged in continuous war for 20 years, the U.S. produces them. U.S. Census reports estimate 18 million veterans and 2.1 million active-duty and reserve service members, with about 7% of the U.S. population having served or currently serving. But figures don’t capture the greater number of family members affected by military service.

Relations between civilians and the veterans are puzzling. We thank vets for their service, then comes the disconnect. We step aside when we see trauma-related behaviors.

Vets wait ridiculous lengths of time – weeks, months – for Veterans Affairs appointments to relieve ailments suffered while serving this country. The weariness sets in from can-you-believe-this?

We feed stereotypes. Namely, that coming back from war often means returning to a life that appears broken. In general, there’s a lack of understanding of how military service shapes people and the challenges waiting at home.

We can do better by prioritizing vets’ health care and treatment, and, generally, connecting with them.

To crash and burn after combat is a normal, human response. Besides deployments, general military service can lead to difficulties, too. There is no timeline for the presentation of mental health concerns. They can surface decades later, underlying the importance of prompt health care at any time.

Many service members thrive, while on duty, then back home. Yet, numbers don’t lie. Compared with about 7% of adults in the general population, 20% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For Vietnam vets, it’s 30%. About 41% of Gulf War, post-Sept. 11 veterans have service-connected disabilities, according to the Veterans and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Forty-one percent!

Other physical struggles require surgeries and grueling rehabilitation. Vets commit suicide at nearly twice the national average and endure chronic homelessness –indicators of struggles to re-assimilate into the society they served.

When living on the streets, something happens. They switch population groups from veterans to those who are homeless. For a time, some found refuge at Purple Cliffs.

We civilians take our freedoms – and veterans’ service – for granted to the point that we allow our elections to bring out the worst in us, tearing apart families and friends, and this very country. What kind of thanks is that?

And we’re not above fighting over vets as a political base. We want their weight to tip our side of the scale.

Vets stormed the Capitol in disproportionate numbers. This action says something, although we’re not sure what. But they’re angry.

We encourage any perks for vets – free haircuts or rides to Albuquerque or discounts, however small. Any effort that shows appreciation.

On Friday, we’ll stand along flag-lined parade routes. In Durango, the parade begins at 11 a.m. at Main Avenue and College Drive, traveling north.

Vets served for us. It’s our turn to serve them. In ways vets say they want and need.