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In my town, there are far too many of them. Usually, but not always, they are men. They always look shabby and worn out. They stand at highway entrance and exit ramps giving passing vehicles as much information as will fit on their hand-held cardboard signs: Lost my job. Lost my house. Wife (or husband) left me. Disabled.


Occasionally, I’ll give them a dollar or two. I’m more likely to give when I see that sad word: “veteran.”

I have read enough and seen enough news reports to know that there is plenty of help available for veterans. They have their own hospital system. Veterans get pensions, and those with disabilities – even disabilities unrelated to combat – can get benefits. There are plenty of support groups.

You take a look at some of these vets standing by the side of the road, looking like they crawled out of the woods, and you have to believe that they’ve made some bad decisions along the way. My guess is that, for many if not most of them, drug and alcohol abuse is somewhere in their past, present and future.

Still, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Can anyone really think that the safety net for veterans catches everyone, that it has no holes? Remember the news reports in the past couple of years of waiting times so long at some VA hospitals that some veterans died waiting for appointments? This past Veterans Day, one of the big stories was that the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 doled out more than $142 million to executives and employees in performance bonuses – performance bonuses.

The VA tried to cover up the poor performance when it first surfaced, now VA officials are finding performances to reward. I know all kinds of people in Washington have expressed all kinds of concern and held all kinds of hearings. But when I hear about millions in performance bonuses for the kind of year the VA had, I’m not ready to look a homeless vet in the eye and say, “Sorry, bud, but there are programs to help you.”

But I’m not saying America has failed its vets – I have worked in Washington as a congressional aide, and I know that our elected officials (and bureaucrats, too) are more sincere and harder working than the public gives them credit for. And, let’s face it, some vets likely bypass services and benefits to which they are entitled due to mental health issues. Or they might take advantage of services only to relapse into a state of destitution because of drug or alcohol abuse.

I’m generally very tough on people who create their own problems, but with vets, I’m a little more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have never been to war but, if the movies are half as realistic as the actual thing, those who have seen combat have been to hell and back. I cannot condemn their choices too harshly.

It’s really impossible to know the full story of how a veteran ended up on the side of the road, begging for change. The signs don’t really say much, and you don’t have enough time to talk before the light changes.

But, if you spent time defending our country, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt if I have a couple of dollars to spare. It’s the least I can do for our veterans.

We should be willing to assume our leaders in government are trying to solve the problems in the VA, but we should be vigilant and stay on top of them. Meanwhile, give a veteran in need the benefit of the doubt and help him or her when you can.

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