Witness Testimony of Colonel James D. McDonough, Jr., USA (Ret.), Veterans' Outreach Center of Rochester, NY, President and Chief Executive Officer
Chairman Filner and members of the Committee, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the true cost of war and its impact on veterans and their families. The truth about caring for veterans and their families in this country is that for the vast majority, it’s a “luck of the draw” proposition, determined largely by one’s geographic location and proximity to advocacy and resources that defines success or failure as a veteran—some will draw the “card” needed at precisely the right time and place; others will not. Some veterans will get help, other veterans will not. The best we hope for is to find an advocate who can help teach us what it means to become a veteran of our armed forces. I say this confidently after serving twenty-six years in the active Army, becoming a veteran and serving the past three years as Director of New York State’s Division of Veterans’ Affairs.
The “true cost of war” in some part can be tracked by our country’s willingness to consent to sending young men and women into battle - if willing to “spend it all,” citizens, through their elected representatives, provide their consent in return for the understanding that the Nation will be behind each and every warrior and their family as they head into battle. The Nation will provide for their every need if the circumstances demand because we ask so much of each of them. This construct is fundamental to the American warrior, but is it shared by all in this country?
The “Sea of Goodwill”[i] referred to by Major General Batiste during this morning’s testimony before Congress is a phrase used by some in the Pentagon to describe and characterize how America views its support toward our veterans and their families, including me and mine. Whether or not that phrase aptly captures the sentiment of America nine years into war in Afghanistan or seven years into war in Iraq, is largely a point I dare say many Americans have not paused to think of, let alone determined, given the state of national rhetoric underway regarding our fragile economy, health care reform measures and educational standing in this world.
As the leader of the nation’s oldest non-profit for veterans and their families, I question such claims that a galvanizing effort is underway in this country behind its veterans and their families. From my perspective, our citizenry is indeed supportive of sending young Americans into battle – we have their consent to do so, but little to nothing is understood about their actual needs upon returning from battle and reintegration back into the very community from which they departed. One reason for this is that our country lacks a coherent national strategy to not only go to war, but to come home and care for those who fought these wars as well. And like all wars, they’re easier to start than end, as we’re seeing daily in Afghanistan, Iraq and back in America in every state where our veterans and their families return to get on with their lives.
And while I believe that it’s in our country’s best interests to foster a “Sea of Goodwill” around caring for veterans and their families, only “ponds” and “lakes” currently exist in pockets across this country, unconnected by coordinating tributary, linking river or supporting stream. These separate and distinct efforts spring up daily but lack context, fit and perspective; often leaving veterans and their families only to receive a fraction of their earned benefits, access to healthcare and services to support their reintegration. There is no “Sea” in the “Sea of Goodwill,” only disjointed smaller bodies of water which serve a minority of our veterans and their families, and very poorly at that. So how do we improve upon that?
We should start by leveraging community-based, private sector providers to better care for veterans and their families. At the end of the day, we want barrier-free access to services and our families included to address the aftermath of war
On any given day in America, only about 36 percent of returning veterans actually use VA services, leaving 64 percent of returning veterans—and their families—somewhere outside the VA’s portfolio of services and benefits, and remember, these are benefits and services they’ve earned due to volunteer active service in the United States Armed Forces. So the first thing to reckon with in creating the conditions necessary for a “Sea of Goodwill” to exist across this country is that our system designed to care for veterans—the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (the “VA”)—must be more inclusive to capture a majority vs. minority of veterans.
To reach the 64 percent of returning veterans not using their services the VA must include community-based providers as part of a more coherent delivery network; private providers, supported by the VA and working alongside public providers, to deliver barrier-free and high quality veterans services, benefits and programs. The place to start is with our families since that’s where the VA is not charged with any responsibility, outside its Veteran Centers. To think for a moment that you can somehow effectively “treat” the veteran absent his/her family, where residual damage and harm lingers, fails to understand one of the “true costs … of these wars,” namely that our families – spouses and children – have become casualties as well. Like other veteran families, my own is now different because of my service to my country, which is a dynamic unlike any other dynamic associated with fighting our Nation’s previous wars. So to understand the “true cost of war,” the system in place to care for veterans and their families must work to account for and include all of us who have served, and our families. How this country supports a system of care for a minority of veterans—at the expense of the majority – is something we all need to understand in order to advocate for change.
Vietnam was largely a young, single male experience. Afghanistan and Iraq is similar age-wise (young), but not exclusively the domain of single males anymore, for today women comprise between 15 and 17 percent of the active armed forces. Add to this demographic the fact that many service members are now married and with families of their own. So much that my Army talked of “recruiting” an individual soldier, but “reenlisting” a family, out of recognition that soldiers would serve again, despite the hardship endured, as long as they knew their family would be taken care—and they would be. But what happens when that family becomes the family of a veteran? Is the sense of caring the same? Unequivocally, I can tell you that the feeling of caring is not. When service members and their families separate from service one of the first things experienced is a sense of isolation from their community. I see it nearly every day as families visit us at Veterans Outreach Center in downtown Rochester (New York).
New York State remains the fifth most populous state in the country when it comes to its veteran population (and their families). Nearly one million veterans call New York State home. Almost 90,000 New Yorkers have served in Afghanistan, Iraq or both since September 11, 2001. If you accept that 36 percent of all returning veterans are actually using VA services and these rates are actually emblematic of broader VA usage rates, in New York State there are roughly 640,000 veterans accessing healthcare, benefits and services outside the system designed to support their needs. Add to this figure their families and you understand that most veterans are being cared for in a community setting. In our community-based counseling center at Veterans Outreach Center we see on average 53 new veterans and family members every month. Our housing services (emergency, transitional, supportive and independent) for homeless veterans operate at capacity (28 “units”) every month; we have a waiting list just to get in and you can “stay” with us for up to two years if need be. 25 percent of our census is comprised of veterans who have served in Afghanistan, Iraq or both, which brings me to my second major point:
The “true cost of these wars” must include the “sunk cost” of underwriting a troubled force
A 350-page report issued in July after a 15-month investigation into the Army’s rising suicide rate found that levels of illegal drug use and criminal activity have reached record highs, while the number of disciplinary actions and forced discharges were at record lows. The result, the Army found, is that “drug and alcohol abuse is a significant health problem in the Army.”[ii] Where the Army once rigidly enforced rules on drug use, it got sloppy in the rush to get soldiers ready for the battlefield. From 2001 to 2009, only 70 percent of DUIs and 61 percent of positive drug tests were referred to the Army’s substance abuse program, and drug testing became haphazard. In 2009, 78,517 soldiers went untested for illegal drugs. Statistically, the Army estimated that 1,311 offenders probably escaped detection. Where did they go? Said General Peter W. Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, “we’ve got kids that are going to have some behavioral health issues. The real hard part for us to determine, ‘OK, I am willing to help this kid, but how long can I help him?”
These troubled “kids” have since separated and are now veterans and are back in every community in this country. As I stated a moment ago, they make up 25 percent of the homeless veterans we serve every day in upstate New York. How much of the “Sea of Goodwill” even understands this fact? We do because we see it every day; another “lake” amongst other “lakes,” but certainly not within any “Sea of Goodwill” that America buys into when it provides Congress its consent to go to war.
Lastly, I encourage Congress to stop spending scarce resources on brick & mortar VA facilities which continue to under-serve our veterans and their families. Like its sister department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains an aging infrastructure, some of which exists in locations no longer conducive to serving veterans. A BRAC-like process is needed to reform where and how the VA and its community partners deliver health care and services to veterans and their families. Geography plays a significant role in proximity to services in our state (like most others) and when you get there after your 1.5 hour drive from Victor to Batavia, New York, what do you see when you walk toward the lobby of the Batavia VA Medical Center? You’re greeted by a sign that reads “No Emergency Services,” limited primary care capacity and only a small handful of actual services. Veterans and their families enter a lobby that is well-worn, devoid of younger veterans, and certainly absent of women veterans.
If this is part of the “Sea of Goodwill” the Pentagon likes to speak of, where actually is the “Goodwill?” Why, if we are the greatest country in the world – the one that prides itself on reminding others it “cares for those who served,”—do we continually pour good money down bad holes and experience the same sub-standard level of care we’ve come to almost expect as veterans? Has it become that bad, that our expectation as veterans is to be cared for poorly? Could a national strategy help? It certainly can’t hurt, just as legislation to create a Veterans Trust Fund can’t either. An up-front investment to be made prior to going to war serves to remind everyone that the true cost of war is calculated differently; that human factors— families, children, spouses, veterans – actually have real value and that their care must be accounted for to receive our nation’s true consent to wage war. If America paused for only a moment to count the true cost it just might not like the price tag associated with their consent. As a veteran, and now someone who cares for veterans and their families in a community setting, perhaps the cost of obtaining the Nation’s consent is the greatest cost to be calculated beforehand.
Chairman Filner and members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to speak before you today. Thank you. This completes my statement. I am happy to answer any questions the Committee may have.
[i] Sea of Goodwill. Matching the Donor to the Need, (A White Paper) Major John W. Copeland and Colonel David W. Sutherland, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Warrior and Family Support
[ii] McClatchy Newspapers, “As wars wind down, U.S. Army faces it problems,” Greensboro, NC News & Record, Sunday, September 19, 2010