Joseph Pruden stood outside Legion Park in Cheverly, raised his right hand and read the military oath.
When the Army veteran read it the second time, he became emotional.
“Getting out the service didn’t change my oath. I still try to abide by it,” Pruden, who served from 1969-72 during the Vietnam War, said after a 30-minute Veterans Day program Monday, Nov. 11. “You’re swearing to protect and defend the Constitution, which pretty much means your country. The military does an exceptional job of molding all these individual strangers into a unit that will fight together, follow orders together, will look out for each other. It truly is a band of brothers. You can’t just turn that off like a switch.”
Pruden and other military veterans received a hearty thank-you Monday for their service to the country.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Maryland), who served in the Army Reserve for 30 years, not only thanked America for allowing him to meet men and women during his military career, but also for what the country provides today.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity [and] privilege to serve in uniform,” he said at an annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Peace Cross in Bladensburg. “I had the opportunity to meet some of the most patriotic men and women from all four corners of this country. This is a great nation. We’ve got the finest universities and colleges. An outstanding system of health. A criminal justice system, while not perfect, it’s better than most you’ll see around the world.”
Although military veterans are honored throughout the year for sacrificing personal time to protect the Americans nationwide and overseas, one of the most severe challenges deals with homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count from last year showed the number of homeless veterans decreased by 5 percent from 2017.
The Metropolitan Council of Governments released its one-day snapshot homelessness report in May that the nine jurisdictions in the D.C. area (six in Northern Virginia, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland and the District of Columbia) saw a decline from 10,480 last year to 9,794 this year, a 7 percent decrease.
In terms of homeless veterans in the region during same time frame, the figure decreased from 441 to 415.
In Maryland, it’s estimated about 371,000 veterans reside in the state. In Prince George’s, about 60,000 veterans call the majority-Black jurisdiction home, the largest number in the state.
Del. Nick Charles (D-District 25) of Forestville continues research on proposed legislation for retired veterans who are 100 percent disabled to not pay state taxes.
“You are talking about people with serious mental health issues, people with body or disfigurement issues,” said Charles, 36, who served in the Air Force for about six years. “I want to make sure we take care of folks who are being left behind.”
‘Turned the corner’
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken care of three million more appointments this year than all of last year, department Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday, touting its 89.7 percent customer satisfaction rate as “the greatest of our history.”
Wilkie said these are just some of the reasons why the department has improved in a short amount of time.
“A few years ago, VA was not in a very good place. Scandal after scandal… I believe we have turned the corner,” he said during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Northwest. “We have a department that is where veterans can come because we understand the culture [and] we speak the language.”
In his nearly hourlong discussion, Wilkie mentioned the “Mission Act” instituted this summer, which allows for veterans to seek private health care.
Critics have chided it as a move toward a form of privatization, which Wilkie discounted, saying the department’s $220 billion budget for about 400,000 employees and 172 hospitals isn’t the sign of an organization “trying to privatize an institution.”
Wilkie, a Trump appointee who took office in July 2018, has made veteran suicide prevention one of his top priorities.
According to the VA’s annual suicide prevention report released in September, veterans committed suicide at a rate 1½ times higher than nonveterans in 2017. The report shows the annual suicide deaths exceeded 6,000 per year since 2008.
Wilkie said other federal agencies such as National Institutes of Health, Housing and Urban Development and Department of Health and Human Services must come together to bring a holistic approach to combat veteran suicide. This comes from an executive order Trump signed in the spring to create a task force of these agencies to present a plan in March 2020.
“I have asked us to take a deep dive into mental health and to addiction and to homelessness,” he said. “I am confident we will have a new direction come March and I thank the administration for bringing the resources together to do that.”