America honors the men and women who fight for their nation. Ads beckon the young to join the armed forces and see the world. We provide training, decent pay, benefits, the best in uniforms and equipment. Soldiers are applauded when they are seated on airplanes, honored at athletic events, celebrated–as they should be–by leaders of both parties. And if they are killed in action, we provide not only benefits for the surviving family, but a funeral with honors and pageantry.
We love our soldiers. But our veterans not so much. Veterans receive health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs and subsidies for education and training through the modern GI Bill, passed by the Democratic Congress under George Bush. President Obama has pushed for tax breaks to give employers incentives to hire veterans. Michelle Obama has championed private efforts to employ vets. But we aren’t meeting the challenges they face.
Eighteen veterans commit suicide each day; more than 30 attempt to do so.
Twenty-two percent of veterans under 25 are unemployed.
Veterans are 50 percent more likely to be homeless than other Americans.
Alarming numbers end up with drug habits that land them in jail.
Many soldiers come to the military from poor and working-class homes. They come from manufacturing towns where jobs have been shipped abroad, from illegal-immigrant communities where military service offers a chance for citizenship, from ghettos where the integrated service offers a way out.
Many veterans return from battlefields bearing the scars of war’s brutalities. They lived under constant tension in foreign countries, often unable to separate enemy from friend while the threat of snipers, terrorists and ambush sapped their nerves. Their dreams were poisoned as they witnessed friends being wounded or killed. And killing or wounding others haunts their memory, as well.
Too often, the wounds–physical and mental–make adjustment back into civilian life difficult if not impossible.
We owe it to these young men and women to do far more to ease this transition. Surely, medical care must include intensive counseling, physical and psychological rehabilitation. Veterans should be assured affordable housing near the place where they work. As the Congressional Progressive Caucus has championed, the government should act as an employer of last resort for veterans. Every assistance should be provided to help them gain employment in the private sector. But in an economy like this one, where 26 million people are in need of full time work, veterans are leaving the service into the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. And the old priority given to GIs after World War II has weakened, as fewer men or women actually go in the service. Here, the federal government should step up to ensure that no veteran ends up homeless or unemployed.
Conservatives condemn the “nanny state,” suggesting that jobs programs, unemployment, welfare support and food stamps erode individual responsibility and subsidize idleness. But the young men and women who volunteer for our military put their lives on the line for their country. As a volunteer force, this is their choice, a choice for which they receive compensation. But when their service ends, our obligation–and our debt–to them should not end.
They bear the scars of their service. We should ensure that their sacrifice is honored not only when they are in uniform, but also when they come home and seek their place in society.