Diane Dimond: Let’s remember veterans all year
Now that the parades are over and we’ve thanked military service members for their sacrifices let’s drill down to take a look at what it’s really like to be a military veteran in the United States.
According to U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 21 million veterans in America. Thanks to a recent two-pronged push by corporations and the government the unemployment rate for vets is down to 3.9 percent. That’s a seven-year low, and that is a rare bit of good news for this group.
Among the bad news: There are almost 50,000 homeless veterans, with many thousands more finding themselves in and out of shelters during the year. Most are single males, predominantly black or Hispanic, and 54 percent have some sort of physical or mental disability. Nearly half of the nation’s veterans who have nowhere to call home served during the Vietnam era. That war ended some 40 years ago, and those veterans have to be over 60 years old. Sixty and living on the streets. Think about that.
I’ve previously written in this space about the still-languishing needs of Vietnam-era veterans suffering from what they firmly believe are diseases caused by their exposure to Agent Orange. Countless numbers of veterans continue to be denied health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs because all these years later they must provide documented proof of their contact with the toxic defoliant — an almost impossible task.
Today, a significant number of vets — both male and female — who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars report brain injuries. And over 300,000 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD frequently leads to substance abuse; relationship problems; and the inability to keep a job, stay in school or function in the world. As we all know, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a dismal record treating veterans in need.
Now a newly released report called “Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty,” released by the Death Penalty Information Center, takes a deep dive into the lack of mercy shown to military veterans who are charged and convicted of murder.
The DPIC says there are more than 300 veterans currently serving on death row and many more who have already been executed. According to the report, defense attorneys, prosecutors and jurors don’t give enough weight to the fact that part of the cost of war is veterans who return home with out-of-character and potentially explosive personalities.
“As the death penalty is being questioned in many areas,” the report states, “it should certainly be more closely scrutinized when used against veterans with PTSD and other mental disabilities stemming from their service.”
To underscore the point, the report highlights the first person executed in 2015. He was Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with a diagnosis of PTSD and other forms of mental illness. Even though Brannan had been declared “100-percent disabled” with PTSD, the state of Georgia sought a death sentence after he inexplicably killed a police officer during a traffic stop.
There is no adequate excuse for cold-blooded murder, of course, but sometimes there is an overriding explanation to consider.
More recently, in Alabama, Courtney Lockhart’s murder trial included testimony from his fiancee that he returned as a different man after a bloody 16-month deployment in Iraq, as did a dozen others from his unit also later charged with murder or attempted murder. Lockhart hid in the closet at night, the fiancee said, started living out of his car, drank too much and once put a gun to his head. The defense argued he was suffering from untreated PTSD when he carjacked and killed college student Lauren Burk in 2008. In the end, Lockhart was convicted and the jury sentenced him to life in prison. In a rare move, the judge overrode the jurors and put Lockhart on death row. He remains there awaiting his appeal to the Alabama state Supreme Court.
We cannot excuse murder in our society, but is there some special consideration to be given to those veterans who gave up part of their lives in the service of the rest of us?
Is there some understanding we need to extend to those who have killed the enemy on our behalf, seen the spilled blood of civilians and children or cradled their best friends as they died in their arms in combat?
No one is arguing the guilty should escape punishment. But there is always the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole, isn’t there?
Web: www. dianedimond.com