In every war that America has fought, declarations have been made to veterans as they return home about the thanks of a grateful nation, along with promises to heal their wounds and help them readjust to civilian life. More often than not, the promises have fallen short of the expectation. Americans have an obligation to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Today, the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is shifting the focus from the battlefield to the post-war treatment of the millions of men and women who have answered the call of duty. The last American troops left Iraq in 2011, and the number remaining in Afghanistan is due to fall to about 30,000 by February before a full withdrawal at the end of 2014.
This is good news for the soldiers and their families. But bringing the troops home is not the end of the story. They return bearing the scars of war and they are owed a debt of honor. The numbers are significant: More than 50,000 members of the U.S. armed forces were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly six times as many are believed to suffer from PTSD — psychological trauma that is often hard to diagnose and harder to heal.
According to a 2012 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, some 22 veterans take their lives every day — nearly one every hour. Sobering as it is, the number may be under-reported because it is based on VA estimates and data that do not include every state.
The good news is that both the Pentagon and the VA have recognized the problem. President Obama, speaking to disabled veterans in Orlando last August, referred to “this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops” and promised to fight it.
In the same speech, the president promised $100 million “to prevent, diagnose and treat mental-health conditions” for veterans and those on active duty. The VA has also been exempt from the across-the-board sequester cuts in funding that affect other parts of the government.
The bad news is that there is still a huge backlog of veterans who must wait for roughly a year, on average, to receive disability pay and benefits.
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of the VA, acknowledges the problem and says the agency is working hard to reduce the backlog, but it still stands at 400,000.
On this Veterans Day, Congress and the president should pledge to make the concerns of veterans a priority and to keep the VA exempt from future budget battles, ensuring that it has the resources to meet the growing need.
When the nation called on America’s men and women in uniform to go to war, they responded to the call with skill, valor and determination. Those same qualities should be displayed by the country in meeting the needs of those who have served.