“I always was afraid of returning from the war maimed and refused amputation.” – Arthur Eck, Prisoner of War
Warfare in the United States has largely contributed to the ongoing issues regarding disabled veterans lacking the proper means to regaining traction back in society, post-war. This problem can be clearly expressed by veteran’s traumatic experiences in the war, as well as their disabilities following the war negatively affecting their lives in the future. According to a National Survey of Homeless Veterans, “Among the 62% of homeless veterans who reported two or more years of homelessness, over 61% reported a serious physical health condition, 55% reported a mental health condition, 76% reported a substance abuse habit, and 32% reported all three.” This survey also noted that “veterans were 11 percentage points more likely to suffer from at least one condition linked to increased risk of death among the homeless population, which means the men and women who risked their lives defending America may be far more likely to die on its streets.”
In order to further convey the magnitude of veteran mistreatment in America, let’s explore some of the archives from an actual disabled veteran during World War II:
The first sentiment quoted above was spoken by WWII United States Army veteran, Arthur Eck, who was all too familiar with such discriminatory treatments aimed at disabled veterans. Arthur fought from 1939-1945 in the United States, France, and Germany, ranking as a Private. He enlisted in 1943 for the Army Air Corps, but was quickly transferred to the Army because they were severely lacking troops during the invasion of France. Arthur was captured by a German lieutenant who placed him in laborious and abusive work camps in which he resided until the end of the war. During this time, Arthur developed frostbitten feet that caused him excruciating pain, and left him semipermanently handicapped; however, he luckily convinced doctors not to amputate his ligaments- a very common medical practice at the time- and he eventually was able to (uncomfortably) walk again. Arthur speaks of his horrific experiences in the Army, with recollections such as:
“We received absolutely NO medical care, not even aspirin. If someone was so weak that he could not get out of his bunk, the guards would literally kick him out. If he still could not get up after another kick or two, the guards would allow him to stay in the barracks. He either got well or died. Several died. There were 130,180 confirmed prisoners of war in all of World War II. Of these, 14,072 died of pneumonia, dysentery, pleurisy, and other results of being starved or brutalized.”
“My frostbitten feet were swollen, black in places and split open in two places. The Army doctors wanted to amputate them several inches above the ankles believing that gangrene would set in and kill me. Also, they were certain that I would lose both feet to frostbite. But I was always afraid of returning from the war maimed and refused amputation.”
Because conditions of medical facilities were poor during this time, veterans not only were neglected during their initial times of distress, but have further been criticized against for their distresses after the war. Referencing a lecture given by professor Aparna Nair of my Disability Studies class (October 16,2017), although state governments allowed pensions for disabled veterans, these pensions were difficult to obtain and had negative connotations related to them in the eyes of society. Propaganda perpetuated a stigma of disabled veterans being a financial nuisance on the government and leeches of the system to the community. Furthermore, these behaviors resulted in a massive amount of disabled veterans being neglected and shamed on the streets for reasons beyond their control.
As more research has been discovered regarding veteran homelessness, there are clear discriminatory patterns that correlate with trends of homeless veterans versus non-veterans. For example, a 2003 study done by the Harvard/Cambridge Hospital Study Group on Veterans’ Health Insurance found that 1,694,316 veterans spanning across all eras of military service (6,039 for WWII) are lacking proper health coverage. The National Survey of Homeless Veterans also concluded that “among the 12,500 people who reported having been homeless for 2 years or more, homeless veterans were found to have been homeless for an average of 9 years, whereas non-veterans were found to have been homeless for 7.3 years.” This statistic alone portrays the fact that veterans are less likely to receive proper care in the initial stages of their post-war lives, ultimately pushing them to homelessness for the majority, if not the entirety, of their lives after war.
Another crucial factor derives from the fact that homeless veterans are significantly more inclined to have more medical issues as compared to homeless non-veterans. According to the National Survey of Homeless Veterans, “homeless veterans reported a higher incidence of various health conditions linked to increased risk of death among the homeless population. Among these conditions: 20.8% had received ER or inpatient care more than 3 times in the last year; 27.3% were tri-morbid, meaning they suffered from mental illness, physical illness, and substance abuse at the same time; 21.3% were over 60; 9.4% reported multiple instances of frostbite; 9.2% reported liver disease; 4.4% reported kidney disease.”
The harsh reality of many post-war disabled veterans has unfortunately sentenced them to a life in poverty after sacrificing theirs to fight for the freedoms we currently possess today.