Current State of Veterans - Armed Forces Week on BTR


Veterans: photo from WikiMedia Commons

Memorial Day is the moment for remembrance and thankfulness, a kick-start to the summer and an occasion for families to rejoin, celebrate around campfires and have barbecues and picnics . Food, friends and a lovely weather are a winning recipe for a great time.

This is true for most Americans. In fact, many of those who should actually be celebrated on this day, still feel like they are at war. At war with a country that doesn’t provide them with all the assistance they need; with poverty, drug addiction and extreme states of need; with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; with a world that doesn’t look at all like the one they knew; or, in the most dramatic cases, with themselves.

Right before the backyard-BBQ-extravaganza-weekend began, USA Today’s James L. Jones and Kevin Schmiegel published a column on post 9/11 veterans’ unemployment rate, which is currently at 11.5%. More than a quarter of the veterans ages 18-24 are jobless, and according to the article, a million veterans are currently looking for work.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, quoting an estimate of the Department of Veteran Affairs on their website, reveals there are 107,000 homeless veterans in the United States are mostly male, single men living in urban areas and suffering from mental illnesses, substance abuse, alcoholism and possibly other co-occurring disorders. Homeless veterans are one third of the homeless population, NCHV reports.

“Veterans homelessness and the 18-per-day suicide rate are national problems and a national embarrassment,” says Joe Davis, Director of Public Affairs at Veterans of Foreign Wars, the oldest and largest organization of combat veterans in the country. With 7600 posts in the US and a nationwide network of veterans’ service officers. VFW was able to help 96,000 veterans recoup $1.4 billion in earned compensation and pension in 2010 – all for free.

“The main issue is ensuring a nation that creates veterans takes care of them when they return home. That requires funding, which is the topic du jour in Washington. The solutions have to be community-based. The federal government can only do so much,” Davis tells BTR.

But what exactly are the issues that a homecoming soldier is confronted with? Why is the “transition” from the military life to civilian so hard for many veterans?

According to Ed Mattson, who served in the United States Marine Corps and is now  the Development Director of the National Guard Bureau of International Affairs-State Partnership Program and a contributor to the magazine Veterans Today, there are many issues that need to be addressed before finding a simple answer to these questions.

“We live in an age of sound-bites, quick and often wrong decisions, and in the “take a pill it will be alright” era,” Mattson tells BTR.

Mattson suggested we refer to an article he wrote for Veterans Today on May 6, 2011. The article explains how in the past, military service only represented a temporary phase in the life of men who would have looked forward to going through it and return to civilian life after serving. Whereas today, “with high unemployment on the home front, the mental anguish that can come from war time deployment, and leaving the world of military benefits, the consideration to join civilian life, particularly for those who contemplated a career in the military, can be stressful”.

Mattson tells BTR that the transition problem “has always been there since man began beating each other over the head with clubs. Every generation of soldiers has had it, but we didn’t really recognize it as a problem until we came up with the “all-volunteer military”, and started deploying troops 3, 4, 5, 6 times to a war zone.”

“Ten years ago, the Department of Defense and other agencies decided something needed to be done. Ten years later, we are still talking about it.”

To Mattson, each case is unique, but if the soldier has physical wounds then “the transition process could take years if not decades to resolve.”

David Bedworth, disabled veteran who served in the Marine Corps from 1974 to 1997, articulates to BTR why transitioning is such a dramatic process: “It is hard for veterans to start a life as a civilian because the lifestyle they experience in service is very rarely replicated when they are discharged.”

“Many veterans return from service or conflict to a world that is alien to them in many respects. They do not adapt well to the lower expectations and unstructured environment.  Many veterans were teenagers when they joined service and return to civilian life in the early forties.  The culture shock is very real when they have to work with colleagues who have no framework of understanding what the veteran has experienced.”

Bedworth believes that the government “has a legal and moral responsibility to support veterans when they return from conflict.”

“The major areas of weakness are medical care (through the Veterans Administration) and specific programs [for issues] such as homelessness, suicide and PTSD.”

Bedworth thinks the primary problem is the way the Veterans Administration is organized. The Veterans Administration “needs to be completely restructured to provide assistance to veterans as originally intended in law”.

Issues such as PTSD are managed in a retroactive manner by the VA instead of proactively: “The VA knows that a certain number of veterans are going to be returning from conflict with PTSD and programs should be in place to manage that load. Instead, programs and money are thrown at the issue to make it go away,” Bedworth tells BTR.

On a different note, Mattson thinks that the real answers to the problems affecting veterans will come from outside the government. “It may come from faith-based solutions, solutions from non-government groups, veteran-sponsored programs, or perhaps a program like the new pilot program called Warrior 2 Citizen,” says Mattson. The latter program mentioned is being initially funded by the Department of Defense, outside fundraising programs, and supported by volunteers.

The program, says Mattson “is this combined effort that holds the most promise, because with the debt burden created by those in DC who believe “government” is the answer to all things, every decision they make has to be predicated on money – they have little or no money available for a long-term solution.”

Written By: Francesca Giuliani