Oklahomans are no strangers to military service.
Today marks the 100-year anniversary of the Armistice Day, the end of World War I. Approximately 90,000 Oklahomans served in the first World War, and they suffered more than 6,000 casualties.
Now, more than 300,000 veterans live in Oklahoma, a legacy of service that should make all Oklahomans proud. But it also means that we as a state have a responsibility to provide care and services for veterans.
It's no secret that veterans suffer from mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injuries at significantly higher rates than civilians. The most recent information on veteran suicide issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that there were more than 6,000 veteran suicide per year between 2008 and 2016, the most recent year they have data for. Over that period, the suicide rate for veterans ages 18-34 increased from 40.4 suicides per 100,000 people in 2008 to 45 in 2016.
Ensuring these veterans have proper health care, job training programs and vocational opportunities are our responsibility. And Oklahoma needs to do more.
Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs cut services at the Norman Veterans Center. While there used to be three on-site, full-time physicians, now one contract physician visits once a week. Pharmacy and lab services that used to be on-site are now contracted out. Local veterans and their families have complained about a drop in the quality of care, protesting outside of the ODVA's office in Oklahoma City earlier this year.
"For right now, we are a nursing home, and we need to get back to being a nursing home," ODVA executive director Doug Elliott said in September.
Properly funding mental health care, providing easily accessible, quality health care for veterans, and ensuring they receive the best care possible at veterans centers are all things Oklahomans can do to take care of the individuals who offered to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend our way of life.
Find out how you can help veterans in the Norman Veterans Center, especially those with no family members or with family who live out of state. Depression and isolation is often exacerbated as the holidays approach. A few minutes of your time, a kind word or a Christmas card can go a long way. Visit Veterans Corner, Inc. in Newcastle or the American Legion on Main Street in Norman. Attend the Veterans Day Parade today, which begins at 1:30 p.m. and travels north along Jenkins to Reaves Park. And pressure your state legislators to file and vote for legislation that supports health care for veterans, including improved mental health care.
Respecting our veterans doesn't just mean a handshake or Facebook shoutout on Veterans Day, although such public support is important. It means creating a quality system that provides the care and support these men and women deserve.