With U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan finally winding down after more than a decade, the nation now must shift its focus from supporting active-duty personnel on the battlefield to helping veterans make a successful transition to life back home.
Today we honor U.S. veterans of all wars. We hold a special place in our hearts for the veterans of World War II, all now over 80 years old, whose numbers dwindle each year.
But thousands of veterans of other, more recent wars also have earned the gratitude and support of their countrymen. We, as a nation, must honor the pledge not only to provide our troops with the materials and assistance they need when stationed abroad but also the programs and help they will need to succeed in peacetime for years to come.
Many veterans will have little trouble re-entering life in their communities and resuming the lifestyle patterns they led before going to war. In fact, the various skills, discipline, ability to work as a team and perseverance they learned in the military should serve them well in the workplace and make them coveted employees.
But many others will face significant hurdles in making the move from wartime to peacetime. Thousands bear the physical scars of battle, while others cope with mental wounds that are less visible.
Thousands will have significant difficulty making the transition. And in many cases, physical injuries, particularly concussions and brain injuries, will contribute to problems that fall under the broad category of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
Suicide among veterans nears epidemic proportions. Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs estimate that about 20 military veterans commit suicide every day across the country. But many experts believe that, as tragic as that number seems, it might be too conservative.
Even with incomplete data, the VA reports that the annual suicide rate among veterans is at least 30 per 100,000 compared to the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. And, sadly, the rate among veterans has risen steadily in recent years.
The problem is not isolated to recently returning veterans. Many suicides occur among veterans 50 and older, including a large segment of Vietnam veterans who might have been dealing with their inner demons for decades.
While suicide is a particular problem demanding immediate and concerted attention, the nation can do better at providing access to health care for all veterans. One example is the failure of the Defense Department and the VA to create a shared electronic medical records system for both troops and veterans.
Because of squabbling between the two departments, plans for a seamless, lifelong records system that will track veterans from active duty into retirement have stagnated for years. Most military medical records since 2004 are stored electronically, but lack of cooperation still requires VA claims processors to ask for record files to be transferred from the DOD.
The red tape can result in delays for veterans seeking treatment or needing to transfer records to a health care provider, which is inexcusable. These two agencies should have developed an electronic record-sharing system years ago.
But the nation’s responsibility to its veterans does not end with providing health care. As President Barack Obama noted in his Saturday weekly radio address, it also means providing them with educational opportunities, training and jobs when they return to civilian life.
“Now that more of them are coming home, we need to serve them as well as they served us,” the president said. “That requires more than a simple ‘thank you’ – especially from those of us elected to serve.”
Amen to that. Today, as we honor our veterans, let us reflect on the fact that our duty to them does not end when they return to the U.S. or even when they leave the military.
It’s a debt that lasts a lifetime.