Americans celebrate those who serve their country when they are in uniform. We honor those who answer their nation’s call and risk their lives in conflicts abroad. But what happens when they return from military battlegrounds abroad to economic battlegrounds at home? We cheer them when they don the uniform. Do we serve them when they take it off? We honored them yesterday, on the Fourth of July; but will we support them today, when the parades are over, the fireworks shot, the flags packed away?
One in four veterans ages 20-24 is unemployed today, according to a study by the Labor Department. A stunning 40 percent of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sought treatment at a VA facility exhibit some form of mental impairment, most often post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression. According to a study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, veterans are 50 percent more likely to be homeless than other Americans.
It gets worse. A Veterans Department study in 2010 reported that veterans receiving some type of VA treatment account for more than 30 suicide attempts a day. And 18 a day succeed in committing suicide. That’s 18 a day.
Today’s soldiers face fierce challenges. We have no national draft, but the volunteer Army increasingly reflects an economic draft, drawing young men and women from working and poor families who are looking for training and a job. They are dispatched, often for repeated tours, to battlefields where the enemy is unclear, the battlelines undefined, where casualties come from hidden mines, ambushes, suicidal terrorists. They must stay alert constantly, but that is no defense. They must try to sort enemy from innocent when no one wears a uniform.
Then they come back to the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. They are supposed to get priority in hiring, but few employers are hiring at all. And those who are often require training or education that veterans don’t have. Many suffer from physical or mental illnesses that come from the stress of their service, making them even less attractive to employers. And the nation that once celebrated them too often forgets about them. Unemployed, divorced or estranged from family, sometimes homeless, under stress, they turn in large numbers to drugs, to alcohol, and even to suicide. Female veterans are more likely to attempt suicide than their male counterparts.
Since 2008, some action has been taken to help. President Obama has demanded a plan to end homelessness among veterans in five years. In 2008 and 2010, Congress passed a broad expansion of veterans education benefits providing, among other things, full tuition support for education at a public university. A Senate committee just passed the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, a jobs bill designed to help veterans find employment. But all of these efforts may be hamstrung by the spending cuts now demanded by Republican legislators – those same legislators who insist that under no circumstances should taxes be raised or loopholes closed on the rich or the big corporations.
The Hiring Heroes Act may not survive to become law, but its terms are already self-limited. It requires veterans to participate in the now-voluntary Transition Assistance Program, which offers job-search techniques, resume writing and interviewing tips. Terrific. But a clear resume and a great interview don’t do much if employers aren’t hiring.
We know what should be done. Every veteran should have a personal transition program, with Defense Department or Labor Department counseling. Each should be guaranteed a program of education or advanced training. Each should be provided assistance for mental and physical health concerns. If there are no jobs, then we should create a Veterans Jobs Corps to provide them with work and/or training.
Those who risk their lives to serve the nation should be repaid with not simply the respect of a grateful nation, but an investment worthy of the sacrifice they were prepared to make.