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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Caring for Returning Vets, Not a Cost of Waging War?

A good article appeared over at a few weeks back looking at a few of the issues that some of our troops may face after they return home. In a media and political environment that seems to favor only 'happy' stories and talk, most Americans fail to realize that we may have very real problems of OEF/OIF veteran homelessness, unemployment, and suicide if we don't provide funds and services to meet their needs as they transition back into civilian life.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


Six months after he returned from Iraq in December 2003, former Army Spec. Craig Smith was jobless and living on Unemployment benefits. Mild post-traumatic stress and his discomfort with other civilians' loose discipline made it hard for him to reintegrate into society. Things just weren’t “working out,” he says.

But Smith was better-prepared than most young former Soldiers for the transition from a wartime military career. He'd paid attention during military-sponsored job counseling sessions. He understood unemployment benefits and wasn't embarrassed to accept them. And he appreciated the urgency of adapting to civilian life. "You either adapt or you're like Sylvester Stallone in that movie," Smith says, referring to the depressed Vietnam vet character John Rambo in First Blood.

After brief stints in school and at "crappy" jobs at a gas station and a restaurant, Smith, now 24, has found work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Pennsylvania. "I really like it ... people treat you with respect."

Smith was lucky. Thousands of vets of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including some of the 18,000 wounded, have failed to find a place in civil society. Their plights are just a preview of a coming epidemic of homelessness, joblessness and suicide among veterans of the Long War, according to some vets advocates.

Widespread Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a major cause of the potential epidemic. "One-third [of veterans] are coming home with post-traumatic stress," says former Army infantry officer Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraqi and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of Chasing Ghosts.

“It can get so severe that it affects their personal lives. It affects everything," says Bill Dozier, Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Assistant Director for Employment and Homelessness. He stresses that PTSD -- and moreover its symptoms -- can take years or decades to develop. PTSD exacerbates the confusion and desperation many vets feel when they try to start over in the civilian world.

Reintegration into civilian life for a former combat veteran is a big hurdle, especially when you consider that most of the younger troops have never had to write a resume or go on a job interview before joining the military. Additionally, returning veterans have the added emotional burdens of war to cope with.

Next comes self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Divorce, crime, homelessness and suicide might follow. Heading off these tragedies takes early intervention in the forms of job and stress counseling and education, Dozier says.

But the agency whose job it is to care for the nation’s 26 million vets is under-funded and ill-equipped to address the problem, critics say. The VA, which spends more than $70 billion annually (half of it for medical care), has suffered budget shortfalls for years. Last year it came up $3 billion short.

Exploding enrollment and skyrocketing medical costs are partly to blame. “[The] VA has experienced unprecedented growth in the medical system workload over the past few years,” reads a Department statement. “The number of patients treated increased by 22 percent from 4.1 million in 2001 to more than 5.3 million in 2005.”

“This Administration still does not count caring for veterans as part of the cost of war,” contends Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “[The] VA wildly underestimated the number of younger vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.” As a result, “the system is available to fewer and fewer people with less and less money,” Dozier says. “You start cutting corners and you start missing things.”

Among the cut corners is PTSD counseling, according to Rieckhoff. “There’s no sense of urgency [in the VA] in regards to PTSD.”

Yet, counseling isn't the only outreach returning veterans need; they need access to job search services, too.

[T]he military provides some job counseling on select posts. But even this is not enough. Dozier says the military must make job counseling mandatory on all military posts so that new veterans know how to write resumes and function in a civilian workplace.

But even with all this preparation, a veteran might be a little rough around the edges -- like Smith was in those difficult months immediately following his separation from the Army. Dozier says employers must understand this and make an effort to meet vets halfway. He praises large companies, such as Home Depot and Sears, that have made it a priority to hire vets. “Some companies would view our military support as a cost. ... We see it as a responsibility,” Home Depot President Bob Nardelli said in a recent interview. “It's our patriotic duty.”

“There was a promise made,” Dozier says. “Those men and women stood up and said they would fight for our country. It's the country’s time now to pay back that debt.”

“It begins with adequately funding the VA,” Rieckhoff says.

Please write your elected officials, and demand that fully and properly funding the VA be made a priority. If it takes an election year for them to commit to it, so be it.

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