At the end of the year, the United States will mark the end of its longest war when the last troops are scheduled to return from Afghanistan. If that occurs, the U.S. will be at peace for the first time since 2001.
But what kind of peace will the 38,000 or so returning troops find waiting for them?
Last week, the U.S. Senate remained deadlocked over a bill that would increase funding for veterans needs by $21 billion. Remarkably, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on a plan that would boost expenses for medical, education and job-training benefits for returning troops.
The clash isn’t so much over providing services for veterans, a bipartisan issue. It’s over the details, specifically how to pay for it. And both parties have this unending habit of trying to tack on other issues to bills targeting specific needs, in this case boosting sanctions against Iran.
This is another example of how our leaders in Washington can’t tie their shoes without playing political games, particularly in an election year, leaving key issues unsolved.
While those Neros fiddle away, veterans need services now. Many return with wounds both seen and unseen that need ongoing care. And all need the kind of transitional support to help them return to civilian life and workplaces after serving their country so well.
“Veterans don’t have time for this nonsense and veterans are tired of being used as political chew toys,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Veterans support agencies are straining under the weight of 22 million U.S. veterans from seven decades’ worth of conflicts. With the U.S. pulling troops first from Iraq and now Afghanistan — perhaps all of them, without a standing forces deal with the Kabul government — those meager resources will be spread even thinner.
We agree with the need to manage our fiscal house properly, which hasn’t always been the case with our federal government. Weighing costs for services is responsible. But priorities must take precedence, and taking care of our returning warriors is a responsibility we share.
Americans don’t quibble over the cost of going to war when the cause is justified. When the lives, security and interests of Americans and our allies are threatened, we go after our enemies and settle the bill later.
But one of those costs comes when the fighting is done and our warriors return home. We can’t choose to spare no expense while in combat, then play it cheap in peacetime. These young men and women put their lives on hold for our benefit, and we owe them, not just with a prosthetic leg and a few other perks, but the long-term health care, job training and support they need to lead productive lives.
The U.S. has done this both well and poorly in the past. After World War I, the feds welched on bonuses promised to veterans, leading to an ugly protest in the capital in 1932.
The nation learned its lesson after World War II, welcoming home 16 million American troops with the GI Bill and a slew of programs designed to ease the flow into civilian life. With that boost, they built the greatest economy and strongest society in world history, one that endures today for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Now soldiers from that war are passing in great numbers, all in their 80s or older. The vets of Korea and Vietnam are seniors as well and depend on health care services for afflictions suffered in combat and since. We can’t ignore their needs even as the heroes from desert wars come home.
We still do it well at times. Last month, a new Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Oakwood was dedicated after opening last fall. The 18,000-square-foot facility offers four times the space and resources as the old clinic off Mundy Mill Road. The clinic serves 4,677 patients, and likely will see more after thousands are redeployed from overseas.
“That just speaks to the number of veterans in this area who need our help,” said Leslie Wiggins, Atlanta VA Medical Center director.
Contrast that with the recent story from Augusta, where delays in test results at a VA clinic likely led to the cancer deaths of three veterans. The administrators responsible so far have escaped penalties by resigning or retiring from their posts, angering those seeking restitution for their incompetence.
Jobs also remain tough to find. Unemployment among recent veterans has dropped from 11.7 percent in January 2013 to 7.9 percent last January, yet remains more than two percentage points higher than the rest of the U.S. population. This is despite the fact most veterans are young, hard-working and possess many of the high-tech, problem-solving skills today’s workforce needs.
Sadly, others are less employable, as substance abuse and mental illness remain high among those who have come through battles scarred on the inside. More than 50,000 U.S. vets remain homeless on any given night.
But even troops who did not face bullets or roadside bombs and do not face such physical and psychological challenges deserve our support. They answered the call to serve our nation in war and peace, and we owe them more than just a pat on the back and a free meal once a year.
There is much debate over the role of government and what it should fund. But the very basic task of any society is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. A key element of that is to take care of those who wear the uniform to protect us.
It’s time for our leaders to put aside the one day in November they’re focused on — the one when they come up for re-election — and think about the day a week later when we honor our nation’s brave warriors.
It’s past time they brought that focus year-round and act to fulfill the obligation to our veterans that they have earned.