LOS ANGELES — While the Department of Veterans Affairs restructures itself to improve access to its services, celebrity advocates for veterans continue to urge everyday Americans to consider the community's needs — and not just on Veterans Day.
The scandal that erupted earlier this year — some patients reportedly died while waiting for care at VA hospitals — led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and brought widespread attention to the plight of veterans and their families. But an efficient VA is just part of the solution, said actor Gary Sinise, an active supporter of veterans' causes through his namesake nonprofit foundation.
"One organization or one government can't support the entire veteran population in the way that they need — not after over a dozen years of war with thousands of military families sacrificing," he said. "But if more people pull together and take a more active approach, we'll get a lot more done."
Celebrities have long supported military service members and veterans, going back to Bob Hope's Christmas Tour to Vietnam with the USO in 1964. But no star power is needed to support this community, said "Criminal Minds" actor Joe Mantegna, adding that any American can "examine their own life and say 'What can I do?'"
"We have to change our thinking," he said. "We can't expect our government to be the whole part and parcel of being the caretaker of men and women in the military."
Supporting the troops is not a political position, the actors said, but a community responsibility. It comes down to awareness. Because less than one percent of the American population serves in the military, the majority of the country isn't attuned to veterans' everyday needs.
"That's a staggering statistic when you think that less than two million people defend over 300 million people," Sinise said. "So naturally there's going to be a massive part of the population that's going to have no clue as to what military service is about ad what the families go through... The military serves in war, and you go to the mall."
Hundreds of non-governmental agencies provide various veterans services, he said, and all can use contributions of time, money or goods.
"Maybe you've got a local veteran's family whose car is broken down," Sinise said. "If you take care of that veteran in your neighborhood, you're solving the problem."
Mantegna would take things even further, advocating for two years of compulsory military or Peace Corps service for young people.
"If you do that, in less than 10 years, you've created a whole generation of Americans who've had a shared experience of contributing to this country," he said.
While he acknowledges his approach might be radical, the result would be a greater understanding of the sacrifices made by service members and their families. But it doesn't have to be so extreme. Just thinking about how to contribute is a good first step, and Veterans Day is a fine time to start.
Said Mantegna: "It's a holiday that allows us to have all the other holidays."
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