As the nation takes a day to memorialize its military dead, those who are living are facing a deadly risk that has nothing to do with war or conflict: the coronavirus.
Different groups face different degrees of danger from the pandemic, from the elderly who are experiencing deadly outbreaks in nursing homes to communities of color with higher infection and death rates. Veterans are among the most hard-hit, with heightened health and economic threats from the pandemic. These veterans face homelessness, lack of health care, delays in receiving financial support, and even death.
I have spent the past four years studying veterans with substance use and mental health disorders who are in the criminal justice system. This work revealed gaps in health care and financial support for veterans, even though they have the best publicly funded benefits in the country. Here are eight ways the pandemic threatens veterans:
1. Age and Other Vulnerabilities
In 2017, veterans’ median age was 64, their average age was 58 and 91% were male. The largest group served in the Vietnam era, where 2.8 million veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant linked to cancer.
Younger veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to dust storms, oil fires, and burn pits with numerous toxins, and perhaps as a consequence have high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Age and respiratory illnesses are both risk factors for COVID-19 mortality. As of May 22, there have been 12,979 people under Veterans Administration care with COVID-19, of whom 1,100 have died.
2. Dangerous Residential Facilities
Veterans needing end-of-life care, those with cognitive disabilities or those needing substance use treatment often live in crowded VA or state-funded residential facilities. State-funded “soldiers’ homes” are notoriously starved for money and staff. The horrific situation at the soldiers’ home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where more than 79 veteran residents have died from a COVID-19 outbreak, illustrates the risk facing the veterans in residential homes.
3. Benefits Unfairly Denied
When a person transitions from active military service to become a veteran, they receive a Certificate of Discharge or Release. This certificate provides information about the circumstances of the discharge or release. It includes characterizations such as “honorable,” “other than honorable,” “bad conduct” or “dishonorable.” These are crucial distinctions, because that status determines whether the Veterans Administration will give them benefits.
Research shows that some veterans with discharges that limit their benefits have PTSD symptoms, military sexual trauma or other behaviors related to military stress. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately more of these negative discharges than veterans from other eras, for reasons still unclear.
The Veterans Administration frequently and perhaps unlawfully denies benefits to veterans with “other than honorable” discharges. Many veterans have requested upgrades to their discharge status. There is a significant backlog of these upgrade requests, and the pandemic will add to it, further delaying access to health care and other benefits.
4. Diminished Access to Health Care
Dental surgery, routine visits and elective surgeries at Veterans Administration medical centers have been postponed since mid-March. VA hospitals are understaffed — just before the pandemic, the VA reported 43,000 staff vacancies out of more than 400,000 health care staff positions. Access to health care will be even more difficult when those medical centers finally reopen because they may have far fewer workers than they need.