Even some of my most conservative, dyed-in-the-wool Republican friends agree that Michelle Obama's speech last night at the Democratic National Convention was inspirational and that it transcended politics.
Her speech was especially moving for its fervent call to all Americans to support veterans and their families, for whom the first lady has been a champion these last four years.
But despite her obvious compassion for our wounded warriors, the hard truth is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) remains in crisis - specifically in its failure to adequately address mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and suicide.
This past week, the Obama Administration ordered that staffing at VA's suicide hotline, which receives about 17,000 calls every day, be expanded by 50 percent before the end
of the year. Currently there are just two dozen professional counselors handling the entire workload at the hotline.
The administration also mandated that VA hire an
additional 800 veterans to provide peer-to-peer counseling.
The executive order, titled Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families, is part of an ongoing effort to improve veteran care by President Obama, who's reportedly increased VA's mental health staff by 41 percent and increased spending on mental health services by nearly 40 percent to about $6 billion a year.
While the current administration has been a vast improvement over
the previous one in terms of veteran care, a more ambitious
and united national effort is still needed to effectively improve mental
health services for veterans.
There are no easy fixes, especially for PTSD and TBI, the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Both still come with a stigma, and there is still widespread debate over the best treatment for both. Too often, veterans with PTSD are tragically never even diagnosed, let alone treated. That needs to change.
Meanwhile, homelessness and suicide rates among veterans are at record highs, and many veterans tell me part of the reason for this is that they feel abandoned and disconnected when they come home.
Nearly one million veterans are now waiting to hear back from VA on their disability claims. Some are waiting up to a year and even longer.
It was also announced this past week that GI Bill payments to veterans from VA are late, again. As a result, some schools could drop the student veterans for not paying tuition, even though it's VA's fault.
How can this kind of neglect happen in a nation that supposedly values its service men and women? The White House may "have their backs," as the first lady said last night, but too many veterans still aren't feeling it.
In a pull-no-punches piece for Time this week, Dr. Elspeth Cameron "Cam" Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist now
serving as chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia's
Department of Mental Health, lays out a list of things the White House could do to really improve veterans mental health.
The list includes more support for treatment methods that the veteran finds
attractive such as animal-assisted therapy, virtual reality, and
complementary and alternative therapy, and the creation of a federal task force to develop a national veterans mental health strategy.
In a statement Friday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said President Obama's executive orders "will have a
positive impact on the lives of veterans and their families for
generations to come."
Hopefully Shinseki is right. But these latest White House moves aren't enough. Barack and Michelle Obama both seem genuinely committed to this issue, but they need to do more. The VA, despite all the improvements, continues to fail too many of our wounded.
There are many miles to go in this marathon before our ailing veterans find real peace.