Holly Richardson: Let's support veterans more than just once a year

A visitor at the South Florida National Cemetery walks among veterans' graves on Veterans Day in Lake Worth, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

I am a military brat. It’s a title I wear with pride.

My dad was a career Air Force officer, flew reconnaissance planes during Vietnam, got a master’s degree in linguistics, then taught French at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and English at the French L’Ecole de L’Air in Salon-de-Provence, France. I moved more than two dozen times before I left for college at age 17.

Military service continues to run in the family. I have two brothers who attended the Air Force Academy, served a number of years on active duty and who continue to serve in the Air Force Reserves.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran and friend of mine, Carl Downing, told me recently that “a veteran is a man or woman who has a deep love for country, a patriot. They have signed a contract that literally included the very real potential that the cost could include their own life. They serve all over the world, live in harsh and hostile conditions, leave loved ones behind and they do it all voluntarily.”

God bless our veterans.

This weekend, we observe Veterans Day, marking the day World War I ended. In 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Armistice with Germany went into effect. It became a national holiday in 1938 and was called Armistice Day until 1954, when it became Veterans Day, a day to honor all who have served in any of the branches of our military.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016 there were 18.5 million military veterans living in the United States. Of those, 1.6 million are women. Nearly half — 9.2 million — are age 65 and older, while 1.6 million are younger than 35. There are 6.7 million Vietnam era veterans and 7.1 million who have served in the Gulf War era. More than one in every five veterans (4 million) has a service-related disability.

On Veterans Day, many people share sentiments like “Our thanks from a grateful nation” and post pictures of flags on our social media accounts. A host of restaurants provide free meals for our veterans. Touching videos of soldiers will make the rounds and people will tear up, seeing our men and women in uniform.

Sometimes, though, we stop seeing them once they get home. We don’t notice them on college campuses, serving in our communities, or in their jobs. In many ways, they are more camouflaged at home than they ever were in combat.

General Douglas MacArthur said “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs released a report on veteran suicide rates. They’re high. An average of 22 veterans a day are taking their own lives. That’s almost one every hour of every day. In Utah, the rates are significantly higher than the national average. Nationally, the rate is 38.4 per 100,000 while here in Utah it is 62.4. That is tragic.

A recent exposé by USA Today details problems at the nation’s oldest veterans’ hospital, including shoddy care and cover-ups. In 2014, the Veterans Affairs Department took a nationwide look at wait times for patients wanting to be seen in a VA hospital. Utah was in the top 10 - or, rather, the bottom 10 — for longest average wait times. Hundreds of veterans waited more than 90 days just to get an appointment.

Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of ways Utah is reaching out to veterans. The Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs has multiple resources. College campuses often have veteran-specific resources like Utah Valley University’s Veteran Success Center. The Utah Legislature ponied up some extra funding to help veterans complete their schooling if/when their Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits run out. Businesses are encouraged to hire veterans and Utah Honor Flight takes veterans to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials honoring their service.

But — we cannot rely on “someone else” to make a difference. If we really are grateful for the sacrifices made and freedoms secured, I hope we show it by doing more than posting on social media once a year. I think J.F.K. had this one right. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson spent a year working on student veteran issues as a student at Utah Valley University in 2016. #OperationGraduation won awards, including “Best of Show” for public relations campaigns in Utah, but the greatest accomplishment of the campaign was seeing positive, permanent changes for student veterans at UVU.