Navy veteran Faron Smith Jr. reacts as he receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a Veterans Administration pop-up vaccination site on April 17, 2021, in Gardena, Calif. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
As the nation takes a day to memorialize its military dead, living military veterans are facing a deadly risk that has nothing to do with war or conflict: the coronavirus.
Different groups and communities have faced different degrees of danger from the pandemic, exemplified by the humanitarian disaster in India and the inequalities in U.S. health outcomes, vaccine distribution problems and outright rejection of vaccines. Veterans have been among the most hard-hit, with heightened health and economic threats from the pandemic. These veterans face homelessness, lack of health care, delays in receiving financial support and even death.
I have spent the past six years studying veterans with substance use and mental health disorders who are in the criminal justice system. This work revealed gaps in health care and financial support for veterans, even though they have the best publicly funded benefits in the country.
Here are eight ways the pandemic continues to threaten veterans.
1. Age and other vulnerabilities
The largest group served in the Gulf era, were exposed to dust storms, oil fires and burn pits with numerous toxins, and perhaps as a consequence have high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
The second-largest group served in the Vietnam era, in which 2.8 million veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant linked to cancer.
Age and respiratory illnesses are both risk factors for COVID-19 mortality. As of May 13, 2021, 258,078 people under Veterans Administration care have been diagnosed with COVID-19, of whom 11,941 have died.
Reluctance to be vaccinated continues to hamper full vaccination efforts, particularly in rural areas. The Veterans Administration has set up successful vaccine distribution sites that now administer to veterans, their spouses, caregivers and others receiving VA health care. Approximately 2.5 million of 19 million veterans have been vaccinated through the agency.
VA Hospital employee Wayne Malone joins staff outside the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center, Monday, April 6, 2020, in New York, where they called for more personal protective equipment and staffing assistance to care for COVID-19 patients. AP Photo/Kathy Willens
2. Benefits unfairly denied or delayed
When a person transitions from active military service to become a veteran, they receive a Certificate of Discharge or Release. This certificate provides information about the circumstances of the discharge or release. It includes characterizations such as “honorable,” “other than honorable,” “bad conduct” or “dishonorable.” These are crucial distinctions because that status determines whether the Veterans Administration will give them benefits.
Research shows that some veterans with discharges that limit their benefits have PTSD symptoms, military sexual trauma or other behaviors related to military stress. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately more of these negative discharges than veterans from other eras.
The Veterans Administration frequently and perhaps unlawfully denies benefits to veterans with “other than honorable” discharges.
Many veterans have requested upgrades to their discharge status. There is a significant backlog of these upgrade requests, and the pandemic added to it, further delaying access to health care and other benefits.
3. Diminished access to health care
Dental surgery, routine visits and elective surgeries at Veterans Administration medical centers have been postponed as individuals await the full reopening of offices. Veterans Administration hospitals are notoriously understaffed – just before the pandemic, the agency reported 43,000 vacancies out of more than 400,000 health care staff positions.
The pandemic added to these problems. An Inspector General report from fall 2020 found that 95% of Veterans Administration health centers are missing a key staff member, most commonly medical providers such as psychiatrists, primary care physicians and nurses, but also custodial staff necessary to keep facilities clean and sanitary.
4. Mental health may get worse
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. A national task force is currently addressing this scourge.
The effects of the pandemic on veteran mental health are not yet clear. The VA continues to encourage digital mental health treatment since office visits remain limited. Suicide hotline calls by veterans were up by 12% on March 22, 2020, just a few weeks into the crisis. Recent information from the Department of Defense suggests the already troubling suicide rates have not changed, with Black and Hispanic veterans at higher risk.
5. Complications for homeless veterans and those in the justice system
The latest available data, from prior to the pandemic, documented 107,400 veterans in state or federal prisons, and 181,500 were incarcerated if we also include jails. While many facilities responded to the pandemic by releasing eligible veterans, there is a revolving door between time served and homelessness.
After years of declining rates of homelessness, there was a 0.5% rise in homelessness from 2019 to 2020. Before the pandemic, in January 2020, an estimated 37,252 veterans were homeless on any given night.
Thousands more veterans are under court-supervised substance use and mental health treatment in veterans treatment courts. More than half of veterans involved with the justice system have either mental health problems or substance use disorders.
Courts quickly moved online after state shutdowns, and many continue in this new mode. While often useful to meet treatment court obligations, online justice administration can be an obstacle for individuals looking for the camaraderie that came with meeting in person. Other challenges relate to access to technology and due process.
As veterans’ facilities close to new participants, many veterans eligible to leave prison or jail have nowhere to go and may become homeless, like this Navy veteran in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images
6. Disability benefits delayed
Veterans Administration office closures have exacerbated the longstanding backlog of disability claims, which more than doubled over the course of the pandemic. Approximately 200,000 veterans wait more than 125 days for a decision. Anything less than 125 days is not considered a delay in benefit claims.
There is a long delay for medical exams to determine disability benefits. As of March 2021, there was a backlog of 357,000 medical exams, nearly three times the backlog from February 2020.
The closure of the National Personnel Records Center, which houses the physical records frequently required to obtain benefits, led to an estimated 18- to 24-month backlog of 499,000 document requests. These documents are often necessary to receive medical benefits as well as military honors upon death.
7. Dangerous residential facilities
Veterans needing end-of-life care, those with cognitive disabilities or those needing substance use treatment often live in crowded Veterans Administration or state-funded residential facilities.
State-funded “soldiers’ homes” are notoriously starved for money and staff. The horrific situation at the soldiers’ home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where 76 veteran residents died from a COVID-19 outbreak, leading to criminal charges, and the deaths of 46 veterans at an Alabama facility illustrate the risk that veterans in residential homes faced early in the pandemic.
8. Economic catastrophe
There are 1.2 million veteran employees in the five industries most severely affected – mining, oil and gas extraction; transportation and warehousing; employment services; travel arrangements; leisure and hospitality – by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Veteran unemployment was at 3.5% before the pandemic and rose to 6.4% by September 2020.
[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
A disproportionately high number of post-9/11 veterans live in some of the hardest-hit communities that depend on these industries and had even higher rates of unemployment than their nonveteran peers as well as other veteran cohorts. Many veterans may face evictions when the national moratorium on evictions lifts on June 30, 2021.
Military spouses are suffering from the economic fallout, as are children affected by school closures.
With veterans, many of the problems they face now existed long before the coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores.
But with the problems posed by the situation today, veterans who were already lacking adequate benefits and resources are now in deeper trouble, and it will be harder to answer their needs.
Trace 100 years of military history
100 years of military history
1918: Meuse-Argonne Offensive
1919: Treaty of Versailles
1920: National Defense Act amended
1921: The Unknown Soldier
1922: Washington Naval Treaty
1924: First U.S. occupation of Dominican Republic ends
1925: Riots in Shanghai
1926: U.S. squashes Nicaraguan coup d’état
1927: ‘China Marines’ in Shanghai
1928: Lt. Schilt receives Medal of Honor
1929: Cayes Massacre
1930: London Naval Treaty
1931: Japan violates League of Nations
1932: Military collides with Bonus Marchers
1933: Civilian Conservation Corps
1934: U.S. occupation ends in Haiti
1935: GHQ Air Force and B-17
1936: Abraham Lincoln Brigade
1937: Protective Mobilization Plan
1938: Munich Agreement inspires U.S. hemisphere defense strategy
1939: World War II officially begins
1940: U.S. prepares for war
1941: U.S. enters WWII
1942: War with Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania
1943: Eisenhower chosen to lead Allies
1945: Battle of Iwo Jima
1946: First session of the United Nations
1947: Air Force, National Security Council founded, Cold War erupts
1948: Marshall Plan signed to rebuild Europe
1949: North Atlantic Treaty
1950: Korean War begins
1951: Second capture of Seoul, Treaty of San Francisco
1952: First hydrogen bomb detonated
1953: Korean Armistice Agreement
1954: U.S. Air Force Academy established
1955: Navy helps evacuate Chinese Nationalist soldiers
1956: Hungarian Revolution
1957: Distant Early Warning Sign
1958: Lebanon crisis
1959: U.S. Special Forces train soldiers in Laos
1960: U.S.-Cuba standoff
1961: Bay of Pigs
1962: Cuban Missile Crisis
1963: Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
1964: Gulf of Tonkin
1965: U.S. officially enters Vietnam War
1966: House Un-American Activities Committee
1967: Operation Swift
1968: Tet Offensive
1969: Nixon Doctrine
1970: U.S. troops invade Cambodia
1971: Conviction in My Lai Massacre
1972: Nguyen Hue Offensive
1973: Ceasefire signed
1974: U.S. evacuation of Cyprus
1975: End of Vietnam War
1976: Women admitted to service academies
1977: President Carter’s new foreign policy for Latin America
1978: Women’s Army Corps dissolved
1979: Iranian Hostage Crisis
1980: Failed attempt to end hostage crisis
1981: Gulf of Sidra Incident
1982: Lebanese Civil War
1983: Peace agreement with Lebanon
1984: Marines leave Beirut
1985: Achille Lauro hijacked
1986: West Berlin discotheque bombing
1987: Iran-Iraq ceasefire
1988: USS Samuel B. Roberts hits naval mine
1989: Bush-Gorbachev meeting
1990: Chemical Weapons Accord
1991: Kuwait liberated
1992: Unified Task Force
1993: Battle of Mogadishu
1994: Iraq Disarmament Crisis
1995: Capt. O’Grady shot down behind enemy lines
1996: Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty
1997: Sexual assault scandals plage military
1998: U.S. embassies bombed
1999: Kosovo Force
2000: USS Cole bombing
2001: September 11 attacks
2002: Operation Anaconda
2003: Shock and awe
2004: No weapons of mass destruction
2005: Rumsfeld announces troop reduction
2006: Saddam hanged
2007: 21,500 more soldiers to Iraq
2008: U.S. Navy takes out U.S. spy satellite
2009: Orders to close Guantanamo Bay
2010: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act
2011: Osama bin Laden killed
2012: Benghazi attack
2013: Women can serve in combat
2014: Slashes to military budget
2015: Iran sanctions lifted
2016: Nuclear Security Summit
2017: Transgender ban in the military
2018: Space Force
2019: Iran reveals new missile defense system
2020: Trump deploys military against protestors
2021: U.S. troops fight COVID
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story that originally ran on April 16, 2020.
Jamie Rowen receives funding from the National Science Foundation.