is a partner with Fox Rothschild LLP, an Iraq war veteran, a former U.S. congressman, and an MSNBC host
Karen C. Buck
is the executive director of SeniorLAW Center (www.seniorlawcenter.org)
Every two to three minutes, one of our nation's World War II veterans dies - about 550 every day. Sixteen million strong during the war, just over a million of these brave men and women survive today. Their median age is now 92 years. We are quickly losing this "Greatest Generation," the veterans who witnessed horrors, atrocities, and genocide, which haunt those who returned.
One of those veterans is Leon Bass, who volunteered to serve his country as a teenager. As a black soldier, he served in a segregated unit, facing racism and a caste system in his own Army. Bass traveled the countries of Europe and helped liberate the survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp at age 18. Upon returning home to Philadelphia, he turned his anger into activism, fighting for freedom and civil rights, and sharing the horrors of the faces of the Holocaust he witnessed. He has spent his life speaking and working to help prevent injustice, promote healing, and end racial and religious hatred.
The contributions of Bass and other older veterans to our communities are immense. But far too many today are aging alone or, like the vets served by the SeniorLAW Center, are facing homelessness and poverty, are targeted for financial exploitation and abuse, and endure trauma and other crises. One of those vets, an 88-year-old Philadelphian, recently went from proud homeowner to homeless squalor. As a young man, he fought bravely at the Battle of the Bulge; as a senior, he was tricked into signing away the rights to his home. All of his life's possessions were stolen or thrown away. After sleeping in his car, he was hospitalized at the VA hospital.
Experts estimate that 14 percent of the adult homeless population has served in the U.S. military. After valiant service, veterans deserve the most basic of human needs: safe shelter, protection from abuse, enough to eat.
What can we do to change this story for older veterans?
First, know who the veterans are in your daily life and thank them for their service. Peace at home is a gift made possible by the harsh sacrifice of others; it's easy to take for granted. Join us in doing more by showing gratitude through action.
Volunteering is one form of action. Help connect an older veteran with the services he needs - and encourage him to access them. Many older veterans don't know what resources are available or they associate asking for help with weakness. Yet, from the VA, they may be eligible for income supports, home-based or nursing home care, health care, burial assistance, education, and other benefits. Nonprofits can help provide free legal assistance to address issues that arise over housing, family, health care, consumer issues, elder abuse, and financial exploitation. Legal services rank among the top unmet needs of veterans, but we can all become advocates to help vets get the support they need and deserve.
Provide opportunities for older vets to tell their stories so we can preserve and document their wealth of wisdom, and to remember and learn from the past. Invite them to schools, libraries, places of worship, community gatherings, and beyond. Their stories of courage, sacrifice, and service are needed, perhaps more than ever. Also, teach your children the meaning of Memorial Day and Veterans Day. They are more than just days off; they are times to remember and to give back.
Our elected leaders need to do more, too: Organize town hall meetings, hold outreach events, get to know veteran constituents and their families, and ensure that services and organizations for veterans are adequately funded and responsive.
2014 has been declared the Year of the Veteran in Philadelphia, to "help, highlight, and support" those who are serving now and those who served before. In addition, May is national Older Americans Month, when aging is celebrated throughout the country. We applaud these opportunities to focus on those who served. Yet our brave parents and grandparents deserve our attention every day, not just for a special month or year.
The Soldier's Creed tells us we are never to leave a fallen comrade. We as a nation should live up to that creed by helping those now in need, never disregarding the sacrifices and dark journeys they have endured so we can live in this extraordinary nation. Let us be as vigilant to their lives now as they were in protecting our freedom then.