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Our Views: Vets' benefits already paid in full

Freebies, discounts for service members are nice, but what most really need are good jobs

POSTED: November 10, 2013 1:00 a.m.

A nice tradition has emerged in recent years for Veterans Day. Monday, U.S. service members will be treated to free meals from restaurants, shopping discounts at retailers and similar perks from other businesses aimed to show them the appreciation they have earned so well.

Though these are appropriate gestures, what happens Tuesday when the goodies run out? That’s when many veterans still will be trying to return to a society and a workplace environment that has become less welcoming to everyone, particularly those making the transition back to civilian life.

True, unemployment has eased and the tight job market has loosened somewhat. The jobless rate for all U.S. veterans was 6.9 percent in October, close to the 6.8 percent rate for nonveterans, though up a bit from 6.3 percent the same time last year.

The disturbing trend, though, is that veterans of recent conflicts are having more trouble finding work. Among those who served in Gulf War conflicts since 2001, the jobless rate is an alarmingly high 10 percent, including an 11.6 percent rate among women, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A quarter of a million Gulf War veterans nationwide remain in search of work. Clearly, younger veterans are having trouble connecting with today’s jobs despite the technical training many received in uniform.

Those numbers are not likely to decline next year when hostilities in Afghanistan are scaled back and U.S. troops begin pulling out. Though the withdrawal will be gradual, over time it will bring tens of thousands home in search of education and employment.

The GI Bill provides veterans with financial aid for higher education, but as many have found these days, even a four-year degree is no guarantee of a career when companies seek ever more specific skills. Thus, many vets will join fellow graduates who are flipping burgers and bagging groceries until the right job comes along.

We applaud businesses for their salutes to our military with offers for meals and products on Veterans Day. But they can make a more permanent impact on their lives by increasing efforts to hire more veterans.

Many already have done so, taking advantage of the problem-solving skills veterans have developed while battling often unseen foes in desert warfare. Those who negotiate such life-or-death hazards have proven their worth as critical thinkers who would be an asset in any workplace.

Companies who hire veterans can take advantage of federal tax credits designed to connect returning troops to industries who need their labor. Those tax breaks are just one incentive from a government that should remain committed to its men and women in uniform. Even in a time of tighter government budgets, the nation can’t in good conscience skimp on veterans benefits.

Department of Veterans Affairs spending has more than doubled since 2005, from $70 billion to more than $152 billion. Much of that is attributed to the aging of Vietnam vets who need increasingly more care, and the various health challenges faced by recent soldiers returning from the Middle East.

This is not just more frivolous government spending; funding for veterans’ health care, housing and other necessities should be a priority in helping them return to civilian life.

Our nation realized long ago this was a fitting way to reward those who have given so much. Mississippi spent one-fifth of its state budget in 1866 to provide artificial limbs for its soldiers home from the Civil War. After that conflict, the National Home for Disabled Soldiers was established to house wounded warriors from both sides.

Yet returning soldiers found less of a welcome home from other wars. After World War I, veterans had few job prospects as unemployment soared into double digits. Thousands of troops returning with war wounds and illnesses led to creation of the Veterans Bureau in 1921, later to become the Veterans Administration, tasked with providing medical care and other needs.

The GI Bill was created after World War II for the 16 million troops who returned from Europe and the Pacific, helping that generation of achievers get an education, buy homes and farms, start businesses and build a peacetime prosperity that became the envy of the world.

Yet today, even more needs to be done. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the Department of Housing and Urban Development say some 62,000 veterans are homeless on U.S. streets on any given night; Veterans Inc. puts that number at 300,000. However many, they face physical, mental and emotional wounds we can’t ignore; after all, their afflictions were caused by the missions on which we sent them.

Our nation has been at war now for a dozen years in the Middle East, some troops serving multiple tours during that time. With the Iraq War ending and the one in Afghanistan winding down soon, it’s a perfect opportunity for leaders in Washington to find common ground on an issue where partisanship has no place: A combined effort to welcome home our heroes with the benefits, jobs and health care they need. Even if members of Congress can’t agree on anything else, surely they can come together to honor those who did their patriotic duty on our behalf.

With that leg up, our returning vets can do for our economy at home what they did for the cause of freedom overseas, just as their grandfathers did after World War II.

American veterans do not fit the stereotype of government-addicted underachievers looking for a handout. No one has done more to earn what they receive. We owe it to them, now and in the future, Veterans Day and beyond.


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