Secretary Shulkin: Help us thank our veterans by inclusion and support

Secretary Shulkin: Help us Say “Thank You” to Veterans through Inclusion and Support

Secretary Shulkin:

As we approach Memorial Day, our nation turns its attention to our young men and women in uniform who proudly serve and defend us. We come together to say “thank you” and we honor their sacrifice and commitment to us. But as you know, far too often, we fall short on our commitment to these brave service members in their moments of greatest need.

In 2015, the New York Times ran an insightful but startling article entitled “Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service.” The article chronicled the stories of veterans returning from combat confronting the gratitude expressed by family, friends, even strangers on the street who recognized them as returning warriors. They spoke about their desire to not only blend in, but to fully immerse themselves in their communities without interruption.

Many of our veterans, like the ones profiled in that New York Times article, come home injured from battle emotionally and physically. As of August 2016, about 4.6 million veterans (22 percent of all veterans) had a service-related disability. As I am a blind American and a disability rights advocate, I live with some of the challenges that Americans with disabilities face. But since I did not serve, never saw combat, didn’t share the experiences of these young men and women, I can never truly comprehend what they lived through. These disabled veterans face a unique challenge given that they often return home with complex disabilities, including amputations, sensory disabilities and post-traumatic stress.

I join millions across the nation in wishing to express my deep gratitude for their service, but respect the opinions so clearly voiced by the wounded warriors who wish nothing more than to blend back into the American landscape. So how do we express our respect, gratitude, desire now to serve our wounded warriors as they return to communities all across the nation?

President Trump promised during his campaign to ‘fix’ the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by improving electronic health record management and eliminating the remaining backlog on disability claims. Assuredly, the millions of disabled veterans would welcome the President’s leadership in this regard and are looking forward to the fulfillment of this important promise.

Beyond those reforms that you are planning to lead in your role as Secretary of the VA, we also need an inclusion revolution, for these veterans. This revolution includes a seamless and efficient method for assisting wounded warriors that seek treatment and care through the Veterans Services administration. We need to increase availability of medical treatments and supports to help wounded warriors cope by providing manned crisis response teams, hotlines, readily accessible medical care, comprehensive records retention and management, rehabilitation and training. Our returning service members need to reap the benefits of the education promised to them by their GI Bills, and to be able to find meaningful jobs.

We must fully embrace our veterans when they return home. That welcome should include retrofitting our workplaces, schools, businesses and communities for any disabilities there are living with. Not only do we have a moral duty to re-engage these disabled veterans, but it will make us better as a nation. We can learn from their lessons in group dynamics, technical prowess, engineering, communications, radar and transportation skills. Our veterans, abled-bodied and disabled, will return home with a wealth of experiences and knowledge and we must fashion a society that allows us to embrace, empower and benefit from their contributions. Including them, respecting and valuing the expertise they have acquired and putting it to use in our civilian communities may be the best way we have of truly saying we are grateful.

This is the power of inclusion. For me, it is the only meaningful way we will ever truly be able to express our deep gratitude for the compassion, energy, protection and service of America’s finest men and women.

I am sure you will join me, on this Memorial Day, in pledging to never relent in our commitment to our nation’s disabled veterans. It is now our chance to return the favor and welcome them home to live and thrive as respected, welcomed and included American civilians with and among us all.

Sincerely,

Janni Lehrer-Stein

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