The physical and psychiatric effects of war can linger long after veterans return to American soil. Last weekend, a 76-year-old veteran committed suicide in the parking lot of a veteran’s affairs medical center, where he had been a patient. According to The New York Times, Peter A. Kaisen was “unable to see an emergency-room physician for reasons related to his mental health.” The hospital, however, reportedly said there was no evidence that Kaisen sought treatment at the hospital prior to the incident.
Veterans in the U.S. face a series of challenges: from mental-health issues and suicide, to unemployment, and widespread homelessness that even a major push by the Obama Administration has yet to fix. The proportion of veterans diagnosed with mental-health or substance-use disorders have increased substantially in recent years; in 2014 risk for suicide was 21 percent higher among veterans compared with civilian adults, and suicides by veterans comprise 18 percent of all suicides nationally. The Department of Veterans affairs has been under fire for more than two years following a national review that uncovered issues at facilities across the nation such as high patient wait-times.
John Cowart, a veteran himself, worked for 30 years as a social worker before retiring from the Veteran Administration Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina. He has helped those who fought in conflicts dating back to the Spanish-American war, most notably arranging reunions and trips for veterans with PTSD to visit the national war museums in Washington D.C. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Cowart about the challenges that many veterans face while reintegrating into civilian life, and how American attitudes towards veterans have changed since the hostile homecomings of those who served in Vietnam. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for context and clarity.