Supporting Our Troops and Protecting Their Rights This Veterans Day

STATEMENT BY THE NATIONAL COUNCIL ON DISABILITY

November 11, 2012 -- This Veterans Day, the National Council on Disability (NCD) pays tribute to the selfless contributions to our great country of so many brave men and women in the armed services and recognizes the important intersection of the veterans and disability communities. NCD’s tribute includes recognition of our own Council Member, Lonnie Moore, and staff member, Sylvia Menifee, who both served in the U.S. Army.

In 2010, NCD hosted a national summit on disability policy. During that event, Sergeant First Class Karl Pasco spoke about his experience with disability as a result of his injuries during his service. Karl joined the Army in 1992, straight out of high school, and has served for over 19 years. While in Iraq in 2004, his vehicle ran over a 500-pound aircraft bomb converted into an improvised explosive device (IED). The blast severely injured him by shattering his right leg, breaking his upper jaw, fracturing three vertebrae, breaking ten ribs, and wounding his left arm with shrapnel. After recovering, Karl’s unit redeployed to Iraq. Fourteen months into deployment, Karl fell victim to another roadside bomb, which tore through his upper arm and ripped apart his jaw. Karl now enjoys being a part-time student at Central Texas College, pursuing a degree in math and a teachers certification. He also interns at Texas A&M Central Texas with the ROTC program. He’s received numerous awards and medals, including two-time Purple Heart recipient, two Bronze Stars, a Meritorious Service Medal, three Army Commendation Medals, eight Army Achievement Medals, and the Combat Action Badge. Karl returned home from Iraq after both significant war injuries, likely not thinking at all about being a part of the disability community, nor about disability civil rights but nonetheless was protected by them.

According to the 2011 American Community Survey, 3.5 million veterans have a service-connected disability. As a new influx of disabled veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, America's most recent veterans are filing for disability benefits at an unprecedented rate, arguably becoming the generation most in need of post-war supports the United States has ever seen. Invisible wounds have also risen dramatically, with more than 400,000 new veterans seeking treatment by the Veterans Administration for mental health concerns, most commonly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Combine these injuries with the tens of thousands of veterans experiencing the effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI – mostly due to mild concussions from bomb blasts. It is difficult, if not impossible, given the nature of the injuries, to determine what is in store or what might be required long term.

More than twenty years before Sergeant First Class Karl Pasco acquired his disabilities during war, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, exactly one week before Iraqi troops would invade Kuwait, beginning what would become the Persian Gulf War. Few troops or policymakers likely thought at the time of the law’s signing of the protections the ADA afforded returning disabled service members; nor could they likely envision that more than twenty years later, it would continue to protect a new round of returning wounded service members.

This summer, NCD held a forum on acquired disabilities called “Common Ground” in which NCD brought together disabled veterans and civilians to explore practical solutions to the problems faced by returning veterans and other Americans with disabilities. NCD’s federal partners at the Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense, and the White House, as well as a diverse team of civilians and veterans with disabilities explored the experiences of re-entering life following acquiring a disability due to injury, illness, combat, or other circumstances. Overwhelmingly, what was clear from the forum is that the barriers are the same for both veteran and civilian populations with acquired disabilities, and that each group grows stronger when working together.

One of the panelists who gave his personal story was U.S. Army Sergeant Erick Castro, a Mexican-American, who six months into his first tour in Iraq lost his left leg as a result of a missile strike to his vehicle. He recuperated at Walter Reed and was awarded the Purple Heart. He also earned his citizenship in a special ceremony presided over by the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Erick went on to earn a B.A. in math and to start a veterans construction company. He is now just three credits shy from earning his MBA and is the business manager of a veteran-based owned and operated construction company. Erick’s message was one of emphasis on the importance of the many opportunities available for veterans to rebuild their lives and in turn help rebuild America.

Indeed, as Americans pay tribute to current service members and veterans past this Veterans Day, let us all recommit to ensuring that those who have returned home have the opportunities to rebuild their lives, to get the supports they require to reintegrate successfully, and to have confidence that the rights of all Americans with disabilities, including veterans, remain robustly enforced and uniformly

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National Council on Disability • 1331 F Street, NW, Suite 850 • Washington, DC 20004