BY SHAHE YENI-KOMSHIAN, MD
The 44-day war of 2020 was a major blow to all Armenians. We lost thousands of young Armenians, we lost lands and much more. The psychological impact was enormous and is still ongoing. On top of all, a rift was created within the Armenian nation, to a level unseen in the past.
In Armenia, civic responsibility is somewhat distorted. The majority of the citizens believe that they have no ability to influence the present course and accordingly there is indifference in a large section of the population. Those who continue to be involved are showing severe negativity towards each other.
In the Diaspora, things are not any better. The percentage of Armenians for whom the Armenian macrocosm existed has never been above 10-20% of the population, but after the war, even that percentage has dropped. Many are disillusioned by the outcome of the war; some lament the lack of leadership, others feel that their financial contribution was in vain and are disappointed from the lack of transparency. Yet others are disappointed from the infighting within traditionally influential organizations. All of this is further eroding the number of engaged Diasporan Armenians who care about the Armenian nation. Many of those have become cynic and negative. A significant percentage of them consider their point of view beyond any reproach and criticize the” other”. Criticism is the “plat du jour.”
Thankfully, there is a minority in the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora that has risen above this frenzy. Those are individuals or groups that have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive. They have analyzed the situation, found a niche they have an expertise in and decided to have an impact in critical disciplines by helping individuals in Armenia/Artsakh who are in need. Whether it is in the domain of healthcare, economy, strengthening infrastructure, technology or other, some have risen above the chaos and are producing tangible results. There are plenty of such individuals or organizations who embody the Armenian resolve and make us all proud.
I would like to focus today on the Armenian soldier and what is being done in that domain to improve their situation and by who. I am not talking about the military needs, technical assistance to the army etc. but rather about helping the thousands of young soldiers who sacrificed themselves to defend their country and by so doing, either paid with their life and or got injured and hence are disabled or chronically ill.
As we all know, in any nation, the army and the state have the responsibility to take care of their soldiers during peace and war. After military service, in most countries, wounded soldiers and the family of deceased heroes are taken care of. In the US for example, there is family survivor benefit aka death pension as well as disability severance pay, social security disability and service member’s injury protection life insurance. For the wounded surviving soldiers and veterans, the US federal government provides comprehensive healthcare via the veterans’ administration.
Such is the case in most countries, whereas in Armenia, until recently, this understanding was lacking. After hospitalization for acute injury and initial care, each wounded soldier was responsible for much of their own care. Their family was left with the burden of rehabilitation and chronic care, sometimes for life.
In the past three decades, Armenia/Arstakh endured the first Artsakh liberation war in the 1990s, the 2016 4- day war and the 2020 44-day war of 2020. Before the 2020 war, there were about 9,000 disabled soldiers in Armenia and about 5,000 wounded soldiers. During the 2020 devastating attack by Azerbaijan on Armenia and Karabakh, 4,025 servicemen were martyred, there are officially 231 missing; 11,000 servicemen were wounded about 1,500 of which are now officially recognized as disabled. Hence, the number of the chronically wounded is about 1% of the total Armenian population but more importantly it is about 3-4% of the young productive population, a high percentage indeed.
Add to this the fact that, by law, the Armenian state pays only about $70-80 per month to injured soldiers or to the family of the martyrs, it becomes obvious that there is lack of adequate compensation to soldiers with disabilities or the families of fallen soldiers.
Who will take care of the wounded soldiers in Armenia? Who will assist them financially? Doesn’t the Armenian state, its citizens or the Armenian nation bare responsibility? Of course it does, but the question is how. Well, until recently the answer would have been a big disappointment but I feel relieved and proud to acknowledge that our soldiers are not forgotten.
It is extremely rewarding to see the evolution of two programs, namely Zinvori Tun Rehab Center and Insurance Foundation for Servicemen, that have evolved in the past 4 years into model programs by helping Armenian casualties of war and wounded veterans. The first program focuses on providing long term care and post war rehabilitation to the wounded, the second provides monetary compensation for the injured and the disabled.
Both programs have similarities.
- They were established in 2017-early 2018, before the regime change. Both were encouraged by the previous administration and continue to be supported by the current one.
- They are both private initiatives. In both instances the program leaders were cognizant of the importance of independent governance but also understood the necessity to be backed by the state. The Zinvori Tun Rehab center is a collaborative effort between “Support for the Wounded Soldiers and Soldiers with Disabilities” NGO, Yerevan State Medical University and the Ministry of Defense of the RA. The «Զինծառայողների ապահովագրության» հիմնադրամ Insurance Foundation for Servicemen (IFS, also known as 1000Plus.am) is a private foundation that approached the government to create a new governmental law with the mandate of providing compensation to injured soldiers and to families of the fallen heroes.
- Both programs are primarily financed by Armenians from the Republic of Armenia, be it the tax paying citizen or major Armenian businesses and organizations. But in addition, they are both supported by Diasporans.
- Both programs are run by young, dynamic and open minded group of individuals who have grasped both the local Armenian and western Diasporan entrepreneurial mentalities.
Զինվորի Տուն Վերականգնողական Կենտրոն/ Zinvori Tun Rehabilitation Center
First, let’s talk about taking care of the wounded. The Soldier’s Home Rehabilitation Center was initiated after the 2016 4-day war and was already serving the wounded. After the 2020 war its role became fundamental. It is the primary provider for rehabilitation care after their discharge from the acute care hospital. Located in the premises of the First Clinical Hospital operated by Yerevan State Medical University, it is able to use professional services of the University’s teaching and lecturing staff.
Zinvori Tun Rehab Center is the leading rehabilitation center in Armenia and the region, equipped with modern appliances and a multidisciplinary team. The center provides rehabilitation care to all soldiers who were wounded while defending the homeland, free-of-charge. The Center is able to treat soldiers with brain and spinal cord injuries, post-coma rehab, amputees who need rehab to whom it provides prostheses, but also takes care of chronic conditions such as urinary and intestinal ostomies, bed sores, etc. It provides state of the art therapy including kinesiotherapy, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, water kinesiotherapy, acupuncture, halo therapy, ergo therapy, paraffin therapy, speech therapist, psychologist, massage, etc. There are two pools available at the Center for the disabled patients who can walk and for those who use wheelchairs. In addition to the rehabilitation treatment, various social, educational, cultural, entertainment and vocational programs are being implemented addressing problems of employment and social reintegration.
To date, the center has served more than 5,000 wounded soldiers. It is fully equipped with first-class equipment, such as Techno body and similar level instruments. All of the health providers are highly qualified and leading specialists in their spheres who had additional international training from various European countries.
The center and its management has been able to secure the building within the Yerevan State Medical center but has completely renovated the building and equipped the center. Over $5 million dollars has been invested to help the soldiers and provide high quality services. It has multiple supporters from important foundations and organizations from Armenia and elsewhere, some from the Diaspora, including Armenian Relief Society. Many individuals from Armenia and the Diaspora also support Zinvori Tun thru donations.
Insurance Foundation for Servicemen (also known as 1000Plus.am)
The second organization is the Insurance Foundation for Servicemen.
The organization was founded in 2017 as a result of the Four-day 2016 war, when 100 lives of young Armenian soldiers were lost. Given that the Armenian government’s contribution to the fallen and injured soldiers was very minimal, IMF was created with the intent to get a larger infusion of monetary support to them, some of whom were at the brink of poverty. The idea was to create a fund directly financed Armenian citizens.
The organization was incepted as a foundation based on the financial model of social security, basically a life insurance plan that pays a lump sum after the death or incapacitation of a soldier on duty followed by ongoing regular payments for the next 20 years. The idea was pitched to the government and IMF as a foundation was created by a special law and hence operates according to Armenian law. It’s basically a private foundation with a state mandate to provide compensation. Its resources are collected from mandatory monthly payments of taxpayers in Armenia and Artsakh, based on income level. In addition, IFS receives voluntary donations from all over the world. In essence, the program is financed by the Armenian nation.
To receive compensation, beneficiaries apply to the Ministry of Defense and to their local municipalities, which vet their applications and establish the names of survivors. The compensation level is clarified in the law. In case of a first-degree disability or fallen soldiers, there is a $20,000 lump sum payment then a payment between $400-$600 a month for 20 years. For a second-degree disability, a lump sum compensation of $10,000 and then $200-$400 a month.
Initially, every single taxpaying Armenian citizen and/or a foreigner working in Armenia and Arstakh was asked to provide $2 monthly, which was subtracted from their net monthly income. After the 2020 devastating attack by Azerbaijan, the number of dead and wounded Armenian soldiers increased exponentially. The mission of IMF became more critical and in 2020 the law was amended for each taxpayer to provide between $3 and $30 every single month in mandatory contributions. Presently, close to 400,000 tax paying individuals provide mandatory contributions. Additionally, IFS receives donations from business owners from the Republic of Armenia as well Diasporan Armenians. To date (11/13/2021), ISF has collected $106 million from Armenian taxpayers. An additional $23 million was collected from donations and investments. Diaspora has contributed via the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund- AWHF and Friends of the Armenian Soldier and Family (FASF) fund both with 501(c) (3) status. In fact, the San Francisco community thru its Task Force recently organized a virtual gala and live auction collecting $100,000, with all proceeds going to the Friends of the Armenian Soldier and Family (FASF) and channeled later to IFS.
IMF has already compensated servicemen in the amount of $108 million but given the recent increase in the number of the fallen and wounded, there is a $12-13 million gap that needs to be closed by the end of the year.
A major identifier for IMF lies in the fact that as an Armenian organization it is totally transparent and accountable. The funds collected by the Foundation can be seen at any time on its website and also contains reports of an independent audit. IMF has quarterly director’s reports and the donors’ as well as beneficiaries’ names are transparent.
Both Zinvori Tun and IFS are already great successes for Armenia. Well planned and well run, both organizations are helping wounded soldiers and the family of the diseased on a continuous basis. Both however can do more and their management has understood and underscored the importance of their evolution.
With the recent 2020 aggression and the resultant 11,000 additional wounded, the number of people who have suffered military war injuries who will need continuous medical care is about 25,000. This is a tall task and the Rehab Center is not large enough to fulfill this goal. Add to this the fact that, at present, there is no hospital or medical facility in Armenia tailored to the needs of people with mobility problems, soldiers with disabilities in essence do not have the opportunity to a dignified long term health care. To address the issue, the Soldier’s Home has initiated a program to build a Veterans’ Hospital.
The Veteran’s Hospital will be a multiprofile surgical medical complex, which will be built and certified according to JCI standards. The hospital will be built approximately in 3 years on an area of 15,000 square meters, provided by the government. The VA hospital will have a capacity of 200 beds. It will have the necessary departments for wounded soldiers such as plastic surgery, urology, traumatology, etc. and the basement will serve as a shelter in wartime. The hospital will be equipped with modern equipment. YSMU will assist in providing medical staff. A number of YSMU chairs will operate there. In parallel with the construction of the hospital, the medical and administrative staff will undergo professional training in different countries of the world. The hospital will include scientific laboratories, training centers. There will be a centralized social service for veterans. The problems of social reintegration of the beneficiary group will also be addressed.
The Veterans’ Hospital will serve all the wounded and disabled soldiers in Armenia, from any era, close to 25,000 plus family members. Moreover, every soldier and volunteer going protecting our country in a possible future war will be sure that if wounded, all problems will be solved in one facility, in a dignified manner.
The project budget is estimated at $ 25 million. A Pan-Armenian fundraiser will be organized around the world for the construction of the veterans’ hospital. It will also be possible to join the unity fundraiser on a virtual platform. A number of Diaspora organizations have already expressed readiness to participate in the construction of the Veterans Hospital but more participation is better. Of course, additional individual donations are necessary.
IFS Endowment Fund
In order to become self-sustained, in addition to the mandatory payments from Armenian taxpayers, IMF plans to come up with a multi-million endowment fund and use its returns as additional source of compensation to the fallen, disabled and wounded. So instead of using donations to supplement the annual shortage needs, it plans to create a larger pool of investable capital as an endowment fund and utilize its returns. For that purpose, a larger base of donors is necessary and additional contributions from the Diaspora is key.
So, the more Diasporans are engaged and are willing to contribute to the Armenian soldiers who defended the country, the better. Any contribution, lump sum or monthly is appreciated but for the average person, a monthly contribution of $25-30 is considered reasonable.
Direct contributions to IFS is possible, clarified on their website. For those who prefer a tax write-off residing the USA and in particular in California, the simplest way to contribute is a donation through Friends of the Armenian Soldier and Family (FASF) which has a 501(c)(3) tax exempt status with a EIN 86-2191892. FAFS funds are channeled and distributed by IFS.
Armenia and Artsakh continue to be threatened by Azerbaijan with ongoing aggression and possibly another war. The role of our soldiers in defending the country is critical and caring for our soldiers is our collective duty. That is why the above two programs are necessary infrastructures for Armenia and need our ongoing support.
In addition, Zinvori Tun and IMF are socio – economic programs that are having a positive impact on the Armenian psyche. At the time when everything is seen from a negative prism, both programs provide clarity of mission, well planned programs as well as success in execution. They have created a new sense of responsibility towards civic duty and national identity in Armenian citizens and Diasporans, important values for the future of our nation. Most importantly, both programs are helping create unity around a common cause immune to politics.