by Walter Brasch
A few million Americans may be thinking about it, but won’t be celebrating Memorial Day. For them, there’s not much to celebrate or to remember.
They’re the low-wage employees who may have to work all three days, without overtime; about three million workers earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Many work 30 to 35 hours a week, just low enough that their employers don’t have to pay for insurance, holidays, or sick leave. The corporate CEOs, of course, will be enjoying the long weekend at their alternate vacation homes in the mountains, or along the coasts, or at off-shore islands where they have found banks willing to hide their money and avoid U.S. taxes.
Almost 600,000 persons are homeless on any given night. They are homeless for any number of reasons, but whatever reason, the reality is they are homeless—and the wealthiest nation in the world cheers $10 million a year pro athletes, but discounts social workers who have graduate degrees and are paid an average of about $46,000 a year.
The homeless live beneath bridges, in subway tunnels, on the streets, or if the shelters aren’t filled, in protected areas with cots for beds, and grocery carts for what few possessions they have. In Atlantic City, the homeless live beneath the boardwalk, unseen by hundreds of thousands who go into casinos, buy expensive dinners, and think nothing of dropping a few hundred or a few thousand dollars at gaming tables and slot machines. In urban cities, those with jobs and families walk by the homeless, as if they are invisible, sometimes erroneously thinking that even if the homeless get a dollar or two, they’d rush off to buy beer, liquor, or more drugs.
About 50,000 of the homeless on any given night are veterans, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Overall, more than 150,000 veterans are homeless during the year. The reasons for veterans being homeless are because of “extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care . . . lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Under the Obama administration, which has focused upon assisting veterans, the number of homeless veterans on any given night has come down from about 80,000 six years ago, but even a few dozen homeless veterans are far too many.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans won’t be able to march in Memorial Day parades, or stand and salute the flag. They don’t have limbs, their muscles have atrophied because of extensive bed confinement, or they have other debilitating illnesses. About 2.2 million American veterans were injured during their service; about 1.7 million of them were wounded in combat, according to a Pew Research Center summary and analysis. About 200,000 military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder of have major depression, according to a study done by the Rand Corp. About 285,000 of the veterans of America’s most recent wars have suffered from traumatic brain injury. Among other injuries, according to the VA are chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, fibromyalgia, hearing difficulties, hepatitis, malaria, memory loss, migraines, sleep disorders and tuberculosis.
More than 120,000 Americans won’t celebrate Memorial Day; they died in combat during the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq/Afghanistan wars.
During this three-day weekend, Americans will grill steaks, burgers, and hot dogs; they will travel to relatives’ or friends’ houses, or take mini-vacations. The nation’s politicians—from small town council members to presidential candidates—will go from picnic to picnic, from rally to rally, and deliver poignant speeches about how much they care about the veterans who were injured or died for their country, and how much veterans mean to the country, while delivering the underlying message to vote for them in the coming election.
But, it is these politicians who, without hesitation, will quickly send American youth into war, and claim that killing people a half-world away somehow protects American citizens. And once Americans are in combat, these same politicians will complain about the cost of war, and vote against providing adequate funds for decent medical and psychological treatment for those who come home damaged.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books, is co-founder of the Northeast Pennsylvania Coalition for the Homeless.]