For full recovery, bring medics off the pandemic sideline
Last year on March 27, just weeks after the U.S. outbreak of COVID-19, the Navy Ship USNS Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles with 800 medical personnel on board. Three thousand miles away, the USNS Comfort — the other of the two dedicated medical ships in the Navy’s fleet — reached the shores of New York. Their joint mission: to serve as a ‘relief valve’ for Los Angeles and New York area hospitals at the onset of the pandemic. For the next six weeks, the two ships equipped with doctors, nurses and hundreds of hospital corpsmen (Navy medics) treated patients to ease the burden on civilian medical personnel focused on COVID patients.
Ironically, had most of those several hundred corpsmen stepped ashore and shed their uniforms, they would not be allowed to serve patients in need — even in the dire emergency of a pandemic. These are highly skilled individuals each with a minimum of $100,000 in taxpayer funded medical training and unparalleled experience in crisis situations. And, in fact, when their military service is complete, many of those who want to continue their medical work struggle to do so. Half of former medics and hospital corpsmen who want to continue working in the medical field are unable to find jobs in the U.S. healthcare industry. And more broadly, sixty percent of veterans describe themselves as underemployed, according to the The Veterans Metrics Initiative.
Proficient military medical experts who can patch-up a severely wounded Marine in Afghanistan, prescribe medication to an ill soldier in the field, or care for an ailing tribal elder in Kenya often must start their training all over again in the civilian world.
The U.S. response to COVID-19 was marked by tragic and fatal shortfalls, including the understaffing of medical personnel in clinics and hospitals. Last fall, for weeks upon weeks as the virus surged, hospitals in at least 25 states reported staff shortages. We recall the harrowing images of patients lined up in crowded hallways and the alarming news of patients being transferred hundreds of miles away for available beds and ambulances being diverted from the closest hospital. Thousands of former medics also stood by and witnessed the ramifications of these shortages. They were, and remain, eager to help, yet are blocked from doing so by red tape in the form of erratic state-level accreditation. The bureaucratic barriers that keep qualified candidates from filling the gaps in our overtaxed health care system can and must be overcome.
As the nation begins its laborious recovery from this pandemic and lays the groundwork preparing for the next occurrence, one thing is clear: Qualified veterans can no longer be sidelined; they must be front and center in the solution. At a time when governors were urging elderly (and vulnerable) medical workers out of retirement, how helpful would it have been to have well-trained veterans instead? They could have been working in overrun hospitals or organizing one of the thousands of vaccination clinics or COVID-19 testing sites that are central in how every community across the country responds to the pandemic.
Every veteran that is out of work represents an incredible lost opportunity for our country — one that can and must be remedied as we learn the lessons of this pandemic and march forward on our recovery. Our message to leaders as we close out Military Appreciation Month: the best way you can thank a veteran is to cut the red tape so they can do what they do best — help us all get back on our feet.
Captain Dan Goldenberg, USN (Ret.) is the Call of Duty Endowment’s executive director and a vice president at Activision Blizzard. The Endowment has funded the placement of more than 85,000 veterans into high quality employment. Follow him on Twitter:@Dan4Vets