It takes a certain fortitude to enlist in the military.  A fortitude that, I am not ashamed to admit, I never had.

Despite a deep respect for those in my family who served in the armed forces and a lifelong fascination with all things military, at a young age I knew in my heart that I didn’t have what it takes. Be it a disinclination to take orders without question, fear of a painful death, or a reluctance to kill others in the name of possibly misguided policy, I was fully aware then and now that I would not have made a good soldier, sailor, or marine.

It is this same awareness that makes me so grateful for the men and women who have and continue to serve our nation.  Fortunately not everyone has the same hang-ups and hesitancy that I had as a youth, and because of that I am blessed with the privilege of liberty and the honor of holding our veterans in the absolute highest regard, honoring them, and thanking them as often as possible.

Both of my grandfathers served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater  of the Second World War. Both saw combat, witnessed the death of friends and the enemy, and were given harsh and lasting reminders of their own mortality. Both were tight-lipped about their time at war, and grateful for their return and for the lives they were allowed to enjoy afterwards. Lives that so many of their friends were denied.

Two of my great-grandfathers served in the First World War. One served on a naval vessel that was torpedoed somewhere in the North Atlantic. He clung to a life raft with 5 of his mates, on the brink of exhaustion for two days and three nights, until rescued and brought to England and then returned to the States. His mother, having been told he was lost at sea, nearly collapsed when he walked into her living room unannounced. The thought of his death looming so close, and the idea that I almost would not have been, serves me a dish of humility that makes me go cold.

Numerous other family and friends have answered the call as well. I am indebted to all of them and to millions more whose sacrifice has provided me the freedom and security that I bask in every day. In fact, all Americans are.

That is why, when I look at our national priorities, it brings tears to my eyes. It seems that as a country we are so committed to the idea of what we term “defense” (but what is actually “war”) and yet we seem to largely forget about the after-effects of it on those who so nobly answered the call of duty.

Consider the following facts:

– An estimated 75,000 veterans go homeless every night, according to the VA.

– Over 20,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were homeless in the last five years.

– Veterans make up only 10% of the population, but they account for 16% of all homeless people.

– Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects veterans of wars at a rate of anywhere from 13% (Gulf war, Iraq, and Afghanistan) to 30% (Vietnam).

– The recent wars have resulted in the highest numbers of veteran suicides since the Army started keeping track 30 years ago.

– We consistently underfund Veterans Health Care and other programs. Veterans groups have claimed the VA medical system is in complete disarray.

We enter wars without regard or pause to consider how many veterans’ lives will be affected, or how many will be killed, injured, or disabled. We ignore the effects of PTSD in returning veterans until their suicides create a large enough statistic to make national headlines. And according to our most recent budget, for every $1 we spend on caring for veterans we spend $13 on making more war.

According to the US Census bureau, there are roughly 21.8 million veterans in the US. Over 9 million of those are over the age of 65. Compared this to the roughly 1.4 million people who are currently on active duty and that means there are 16 veterans for every current member of the military. And coming out of two long wars, that number is going to continue to grow.

But with a 16-1 ratio we’re looking at an inverse ratio in our spending. Note: I realize this isn’t an accurate way to break down our defense spending, but please, indulge me. If you divide the total defense budget ($754 billion) by the number of active duty members (1.4 million), we spend roughly $540,000 per member per year.

Now divide the total VA budget ($58.7 billion) by the number of veterans (21.8 million) and we’re only spending about $2700 per veteran per year.

$540,000 / $2700 = 200 to 1. On a dollar per member vs. dollar per veteran basis, veterans lose by a margin of 200 to 1.

Dare I suggest that we owe them more?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we shift the entire defense budget over to Veterans Affairs. Nor am I suggesting that our active duty members should be paid less. In fact, if it were up to me I would double the pay of our service members and reduce the amount of money we spend on reckless and often fruitless weapons development.

What I am saying is that if we, as a nation, are going to invest SO MUCH of our budget on the makings of wars, then perhaps we should also find a way to take better care of those who we order to actually fight them.

Because the thought of even a single veteran who has no place to live, no food to eat, poor medical care, no refuge of treatment for psychological disorders or substance abuse, or who can’t find a job, is enough to make me ashamed of my country’s fiscal priorities. And with the sacrifices of our service members as a backdrop it is even more appalling.

They gave up weekends, holidays, Christmases and Thanksgivings. They gave up fist words, soccer games, and school plays with their families. Many gave their innocence, their blood, their limbs, their vision, their emotional well being, all for something greater which we call American liberty.

What are we willing to give to them?

Why aren’t VA hospitals the finest medical facilities in the country?
Why are there delays in treatment for most veterans at these aging facilities?
Why aren’t there publicly funded programs in every county in the nation, overstaffed and ready to help any veteran find a job, a home, or help when it is needed?
Why does the lip service of the campaign podium rarely transform into action come budget season?

As the ongoing budget debates continue, let us all unify around a simple, undeniable, and unifying truth: we owe our veterans more. More than they get, more than they ask, more than we can ever give. Let every one of your elected officials, from the city council up to the White House, know how important veterans are to you, to us, and tell them you want to see more help for them at every level of government. Tell them you’re willing to pay more in taxes for it. Because without these veterans, there would be no country to fund, no freedom to enjoy, no government to petition.

Thank the veterans in your life today. And don’t forget about them tomorrow. I know they are too humble to ask us to remember them, so let’s do it anyway.

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