Before I was a rabbi, I was a career Navy officer. I am also a veteran on total disability. With this part of what defines me, one thing I do is volunteer as a pastoral counselor and benefits advocate at the Disabled American Veterans chapter office in Olympia. Because of my own experiences trying to access disability benefits through the Veteran’s Administration and the Social Security Administration, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that other disabled veterans get the services they need — that they earned — through service to our country.
Sadly, political and budgetary pressures are putting our veterans at great risk. There are current moves afoot in the Defense Department to cut military and retiree pay and benefits while we are at war. The VA, while doing its best, is not able to fully serve all veterans.
The situation for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is even worse. With troops serving as many as five or six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a miracle that all troops coming home are not severely disabled due to PTSD.
What is worse, several sources have found that roughly 56 percent of veterans with PTSD diagnoses are homeless. The VA reports that there are usually about 107,000 veterans without a place to stay. Veterans comprise more than 25 percent of the homeless population throughout the United States.
This inability of our country to care for the veterans it chews up in combat is a true hillul Hashem, a disgrace to God. You might be saying to yourself that this is horrible, but why am I reading about it in the JTNews?
We as Jews have a huge obligation to care for each other. Irrespective of one’s political views, I believe we all have an absolute Torah obligation to care for our veterans.
In Parashat Shofetim (Sept. 4 this year), we see in Deuteronomy 20 the rules for who should not go to war. After the priests have given instructions, the officers, in verse eight, say, “Who is the man who is afraid and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house so his brother’s heart should not melt like his.” In other words, Torah understands that soldiers who are not fully ready mentally should not go into combat, because they will bring down their unit. Nonetheless, we have soldiers with severe PTSD who are sent back to combat for more troubles.
In Ecclesiates 3:3 we see “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Midrash Kohelet Rabbah (tr. Davka Soncino Classics edition) III:5 interprets this as “A time to kill: in the time of war; A time to heal: in the time of peace. A time to break down: in the time of war; A time to build up: in the time of peace.”
What is this telling us? Those military personnel who come home are now in our care. We must help them rebuild their lives, and to seek spiritual and physical healing. In Leviticus 10:18 we are told, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Veterans are a small percentage of the population, but we all are obligated to care for them. Would you like to experience what our troops go through in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere? Would you like to be fighting these wars every day, even after you’ve come home? As a veteran, I dread the idea of the life veterans of our era are living — if you can call it living.
So what can we do? There are many things. Advocating for better care for military troops and veterans and preserving the benefits we have earned in blood is a good start. Contact your Congressional delegation as well as your local leaders to plead for better care for our veterans. Make donations to Veteran Service Organizations, which help care for our wounded and disabled veterans. Speak out about it on your blogs, your Facebook and LinkedIn posts, your tweets. In other words, shout it from the rooftops.
August 31 brings in the month of Elul, where we focus on heshbon hanefesh, self-introspection and personal inventories. As we near the penitential season, we need to ask ourselves, have we done everything we can to bring peace at home and abroad? Have we done everything we can to help wounded and disabled veterans heal? This is one of many forms of tikkun olam, of repairing the damage, that we can easily effect.
As we see in Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of the Sages, 1:12, according to our great teacher Hillel, may it be God’s will that we should be like Aaron the priest’s students, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all humans, and bringing people nearer to Torah.
Rabbi Jaron B. Matlow, a Navy disabled veteran, volunteers as spiritual adviser to Congregation B’nai Torah in Olympia and as a veteran counselor and advocate at the Disabled American Veterans, Olympia office.