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Soldiers of Misfortune: Thousands of Long Island Veterans Need Help


Life During Wartime

The Battle of Long Island is an historical chapter from the Revolutionary War, but there is a war still being fought here just the same. It’s the battle to bring peace to the veterans who return from duty and find no comfort of home, or if they do have a place to live, they find that they’ve brought the war home within them.

Sometimes the casualties can be the veterans themselves, or their families, their spouses and their lovers. The soldiers may survive their mission but succumb to alcohol and substance abuse off-duty. Some may be walking around with symptoms that go untreated for decades until suddenly their own bodies turn against them, like those who were exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam. Veterans of the Gulf War and our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may be suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders—invisible wounds that require serious attention but can only be determined by those skilled practitioners who know the signs.


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Long Island reportedly boasts one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the nation, second to San Diego, and between 2,000 and 11,000 of them are estimated as currently homeless. There had been as many as 174,000 veterans living here but a figure revised in 2010 pegs the total at fewer than 153,000 because the survivors of World War II, who helped put Long Island’s suburbs on the map, are dying off at a rate of 11,000 a day nationwide.

Tragically, Vietnam vets may not outlast the veterans who fought years before them in Korea. According to a 1987 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these soldiers seem to have a death rate 1.5 times higher than those who didn’t serve “in country”—in Vietnam itself. Last fall, President Barack Obama’s new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, announced that his department would conduct a three-year follow-up study to see if an unusual “die-off” is still occurring.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had changed its name from the Veterans Administration in 1989. But the idea of honoring our soldiers’ service has deep roots in our country, going back to when the Pilgrims decided to aid those who were disabled while defending the fledgling colony from the Pequot Indians. From that small start has grown one of the largest bureaucracies in our nation for the benefit of veterans of World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the All-Volunteer Force, which includes Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn (with new names to come, no doubt, as other missions arise).

Here, the most well-known facility is the Northport VA Medical Center, down the road from the Northport Middle School in Suffolk County. The VA also runs three small centers in Babylon, Plainview (which is about to be moved to the Nassau University Medical Center) and Woodhaven. The VA plans to open a new facility in Riverhead this spring to better serve veterans on the East End. Right now, a veteran in Riverhead without a car would have to take a four-hour bus ride to arrive in time for an early morning appointment at the Northport VA.

Long Islanders who serve today are primarily in the U.S. Army Reserves and the National Guard. Unlike past conflicts, they repeat their tours of duty, sometimes three or four times. By contrast, soldiers in Vietnam, particularly those who were drafted, only did one.

Because LI lacks a military base like Fort Drum, to the west of the Adirondacks, the Island’s men and women in uniform have to rely on their neighbors for support, and many of their neighbors don’t even know they’re away.

Studies have shown that soldiers doing more tours increase their risks of injury as well as PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other problems. But thanks to recent rules changes by the VA, those conditions eligible for medical coverage now include hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease along with diabetes and a dozen other diseases. Veterans who were in combat zones can now claim benefits for PTSD without having to prove that they were involved in a traumatic incident 40 or more years ago—they just need the recommendation of a licensed mental health professional.

But some veterans don’t want that diagnosis.

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