Dennis Persica: Reflections on military veterans

I have a little booklet that my dad got when he was mustered out of the Navy at the end of World War II. It’s titled “Going Back to Civilian Life.”

It details things returning veterans should know: benefits available to them and their families, advice on keeping the government life insurance they may have had while at war, how to look for a job. There was even a provision for maternity care for wives of enlisted men and for a year’s worth of government health care for the newborn baby.

Monday is Memorial Day, a day on which we honor the million-plus who have died while wearing the uniform of the United States military. There were many, many more, however, who like my dad were fortunate to return from war instead of being devoured by it.

At the height of the Cold War, people who thought they were being clever would ask this question about the potential survivors of the nuclear holocaust we all were sure would come: “Won’t the living envy the dead?”

After a story in The New York Times last week, we might wonder if the same is not true of some veterans. On average, 22 veterans a day decide to take their own lives, the story said; the living choosing to join the dead. There’s been a similar rise in suicides among people still in uniform in recent years. Officials are trying to figure out why.

Meanwhile, more discouraging news: More than 600,000 claims for disability compensation are backlogged in the Veterans Administration. The reality is probably worse than that, since a claim is considered “backlogged” if it has been pending for more than 125 days.

On its website, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group says it takes an average of 490 days to process a claim in New Orleans. The good news is that New Orleans has the shortest wait time of the 16 cities listed on the website. Or maybe that’s more of the bad news.

According to IAVA, the longest wait for a disability claim determination, 681 days, is in Reno, Nev. In all, more than 878,000 veterans nationwide are waiting to have their claims settled, IAVA says. It looks like the Internal Revenue Service wasn’t the only federal agency facing an avalanche of paperwork in recent years.

We can be sure that things didn’t go smoothly for World War II veterans, either in their personal lives or when it came to dealing with government bureaucracy. But those veterans came back to a different world. The country was still in the Great Depression when we entered the war. That meant there was a lot of rebuilding to be done once we turned our attention back home after the war was over.

Yes, there were economic dislocations as war industries wound down, but that was outweighed by the opportunities. Opportunities led to jobs, which led to more demand and more jobs. Meanwhile, veterans had babies — lots of them. And all of this was being fueled by an infusion of government money in the form of benefits that veterans used to buy homes or return to school.

Today’s veteran comes home to a mostly jobless recovery from the Great Recession and to government agencies bearing the brunt of the “austerity” mania, struggling to keep up with the demand for their services.

“Going back to civilian life” probably was never easy. But it seems to be even harder today.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is