Veterans Need More Help to Get All the Way Home: Albert R. Hunt

Our family next week is going to watch the debut of the Washington Nationals’ new pitching sensation, Stephen Strasburg. However he does, there is one certainty: At the end of the third inning, a capacity crowd will rise and cheer the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans in attendance.

Forty years ago, during the Vietnam War, they would have been booed.

As Americans commemorate Memorial Day, the culture has come a long way in celebrating the warriors, whatever one thinks of the war. Veterans returning from Vietnam were called baby killers and war criminals; Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remembers feeling uneasy wearing his uniform in public.

Today, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are celebrated at sporting events, in Memorial Day parades and by politicians of all persuasions. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget has doubled in the past eight years, and is up almost a third from three years ago.

Top Obama administration officials -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mullen, and Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki -- win plaudits from the veterans community; this wasn’t the case with several of their predecessors.

Yet problems, big problems, persist. With the volunteer military there often seems to be a disconnect between veterans, as well active personnel, and much of the rest of society. This is in stark contrast to the post-World War II era, when veterans formed the core of most communities.

‘Better Than Vietnam’

“It’s better than Vietnam, but we still face a disconnect; there is too much apathy,” says Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of the New York-based advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq. “On Memorial Day, most Americans go to the mall or the beach; we go to the cemetery.”

The Obama administration, he believes, is pretty good on veterans’ policies while lacking, especially at the presidential level, passion and more commitment. “There should be a national call for action,” he declares, addressing concerns ranging from jobs to homelessness to mental health.

There are substantive issues. The unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is more than 13 percent; there are more than 100,000 homeless veterans, women face special challenges and there are humongous mental-health deficiencies; the Pentagon estimates that 20 percent of those who’ve served in these wars will suffer from mental-health issues.

VA Delays

And the Veterans Administration is too bureaucratic. Currently, there are more than a half-million disability claims with the VA; more than one-third have been pending more than four months. “The average veteran walking into the VA does not see much change,” Rieckhoff says.

He says Shinseki, who he believes is genuinely committed to changing the VA culture, “has to put more points on the board.”

Shinseki was an enlightened choice for Obama. He lost part of his foot fighting in Vietnam and rose to the rank of four-star general. As Army chief of staff in 2002, he told Congress that several hundred thousand troops were necessary for a successful mission to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. That infuriated the Bush administration’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who ignored him -- causing great damage to the country and the armed forces -- and then tried to humiliate him.

‘Soldier’s Soldier’

Shinseki is a genuine hero, especially to much of the veterans’ community. “Eric Shinseki is a soldier’s soldier and a veteran’s veteran,” says Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards of Texas, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. “His heart and soul is with the care of troops.”

The availability of more resources, a process that began before this administration, has made a difference. Over the past three years, the VA has added 3,384 doctors, 14,426 nurses and 145 community-based outpatient clinics. The clinics are particularly important to the many veterans who live in rural areas without a nearby VA hospital.

For almost 30 years, veterans who had to drive long distances were only reimbursed 11 cents a mile. Edwards led the effort to boost that to 41 cents a mile. For some veterans, that extra $30 for a 100-mile round trip made the difference between getting necessary treatment or not.

Also significant was the creation, after the Sept. 11 attacks, of a new GI educational bill, patterned after the post-World War II measure that many believe was a big force in America’s economic surge. This year, almost half a million veterans will be enrolled in the program.

New GI Bill

Yet for whatever progress, glaring gaps and chronic flaws persist. The GI education bill doesn’t cover vocational and technical training. After World War II, hundreds of thousands, even millions of veterans went to trade schools, filling America’s critical labor needs; there is a similar need today.

And there has been little progress on the above-average joblessness for returning veterans. A Senate proposal by Democrat Max Baucus of Montana and Iowa Republican Charles Grassley would give employers a streamlined $6,000 tax credit for hiring recently discharged veterans. The White House is noncommittal on any veterans-centered jobs measure, though Shinseki supports the notion, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a big backer of veterans, has expressed her backing for a veterans’ jobs summit.

Mental-Health Care

And mental health, long given short shrift by the VA, is a serious concern, with the Pentagon estimating that one-fifth of the more than 1 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans will be afflicted. “With the multiple deployments and many types of confrontations, mental health will be the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the next 50 years,” Edwards says.

Shinseki has set a goal of eliminating homelessness among veterans within five years; there are an estimated 107,000 homeless veterans today, down from 131,000 last year. He is moving to make the agency more sensitive to women, who soon will comprise 15 percent of the military; today, there are some veterans’ facilities without female bathrooms.

A tougher task will be fulfilling Shinseki’s vow to streamline the cumbersome bureaucracy and its inexcusable delays and waits for benefits. If he succeeds, the negative perceptions described by Rieckhoff will start to change and future Memorial Days will be better for all.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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