Our veterans, living and dead, deserve better from us

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 10, 2011

Some of the ways we honor our men and women in the military:

●A free doughnut at Krispy Kreme.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

●Free seats at the ballgame — you can salute these brave troops on the Jumbotron!

●A free small Slurpee at 7-Eleven (but only between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., NOT 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., mind you.)

●And even — wait for this — a FREE Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse!

Some of the ways we disrespect the men and women who have lost their lives in combat:

We mix up their remains at Arlington National Cemetery.

●Bury them under the wrong headstones.

●On this Veterans Day, it’s hard not to feel outraged. And not just about the way the men and women who serve our country sometimes get treated.

It’s been impossible to read the news these past few weeks without being confronted by the dreadful decay in our communities and our character. At a fancy Bethesda yoga store, a woman begging for help during her brutal murder was overheard by her neighbors but not saved.

At a prestigious public university a few hours away from us, little boys with little privilege were allegedly raped and abused, but the adults who allegedly knew didn’t stop it because they really, really liked their Penn State football program.

And we learned this week that when some young men and women gave their lives in service to the country and came home in unrecognizable pieces, their remains were sometimes tossed in a landfill.

It is horrifying to hear all the rhetoric about supporting our troops and see the small ways businesses offer gestures of appreciation for our warriors while a few of our own government institutions have treated the remains of those who lost their lives so poorly.

The family members of the dead never knew that parts of their loved ones were cremated and dumped at a Virginia landfill, according to the stories by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe this week.

It is difficult to hear the grief of someone who has lost a loved one in battle. They choke up in tears, puff up in pride and crumble in despair. You shift, put your pen down, sometimes try to hold your own emotions in check as you give them a moment to catch their breath and go on.

They sometimes wonder why their baby or sweetheart or best friend had to die so brutally, so far away. There are 6,274 of these families in America today.

And then, as if it couldn’t get worse, it did for some.

Gari-Lynn Smith told The Post that she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had disposed of some of her husband’s remains after he was killed in Iraq in 2006.

“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Smith told The Post. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”

This latest horror came after the government’s investigations into the way Dover Air Force Base’s mortuary has been handling the remains of troops who were killed abroad.

Those investigations showed that the mortuary also lost body parts, mishandled and mislabled them, and even further mangled them — in one case sawing off a Marine’s arm so he could better fit into a coffin.

Some of the mortuary officials were disciplined, but none were fired.

This sounds very much like the scandal that The Post’s Christian Davenport wrote about at Arlington Cemetery last year, where urns were dug up and dumped in dirt piles, remains were misplaced and misidentified, and Congress launched an investigation into the contracts of most of the work done there.

Now that we know how some of our dead veterans have been treated, let’s take a moment to stop thinking about Macy’s Veterans Day sale and ponder how veterans who make it home alive are doing.

It’s more likely for a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than a civilian, to be unemployed. Recent vets had an unemployment rate last month of 12.1 percent, according to the Labor Department, compared with 9 percent for civilians.

“We ask our men and women in uniform to leave their careers, leave their families and risk their lives to fight for our country,” President Obama said in a speech last month in Virginia. “The last thing they should have to do is fight for a job when they come home.”

They return from battle, often broken, and were subjected to appalling conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before it was shut down this year.

Some lose limbs or suffer from head trauma. One in six return with post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide rates have skyrocketed. Many service members have endured multiple deployments. I talked to the mother of a 6-year-old who was on her third deployment since her child was born.

They all deserve better from us than a small Slurpee.

Read more Veterans Day stories on PostLocal.com

At Arlington, artifacts of grief

Fallen soldier’s family brings dog home from Iraq

Dvorak: Our veterans deserve better from us

Remembering D.C.’s doughboys: WWI memorial reopens

Honor the veterans in your life: Share tributes

Veterans Day events around the region

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