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Our Views: Americas call of duty
The nations should do more to ensure its returning veterans can prosper and lead
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. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson. 

US veterans by the numbers

Total: 21,999,108

Wartime: 16,502,814

Peacetime: 5,496,294

Pre-World War II: 11,213

World War II: 1,107,314

Korea: 1,886,476

Vietnam era: 7,247,490

Gulf War era: 7,033,181

Source: National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics

Last Tuesday, Americans trudged dutifully to the polls to vote, proudly plastering “I’m A Voter” stickers on their chests for the rest of the day.

This Tuesday, we celebrate civic participation that goes beyond that effort, one that ensures our freedom to cast a ballot every two years: Veterans Day, set aside to honor military personnel past and present who have sacrificed so much for what the U.S. Constitution represents.

That Constitution, as everyone knows, didn’t just happen. It took a war against an oppressive colonial power to bring it about, a civil war to comb out its greatest injustice and several more since to ward off threats to liberty around the globe, battles that continue today.

The day we observe each Nov. 11 once was called Armistice Day marking the end of World War I, which began 100 years ago this year. Though America’s time in that war was short, its casualties were heavy, yet it has been largely overshadowed by more recent, larger scale conflicts. But it drew an important line of demarcation between the romanticized notion of cavalier soldiers and the mechanized, wholesale slaughter ushered in by technology that has been fought ever since.

It’s too easy for many to forget the horrors of war when combat is glorified through movies, TV shows and video games. And it’s easy to forget the soldiers from long-fought battles, past and present.

As recent veterans of Middle East wars return home, those who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are aging and passing on in great numbers. The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, an arm of the Veterans Affairs Administration, estimates the number of U.S. veterans to drop from around 22 million today to just more than 14 million by 2040, barring future wars. About 750,000 currently live in Georgia, 12,000 of those in Hall County.

The current Afghanistan war has droned on for 13 years and largely faded from public consciousness. The yellow ribbons displayed to welcome soldiers home aren’t as prevalent as they once were, time having dulled Americans’ senses to the struggles those troops have endured on our behalf.

And despite their valiant efforts, peace remains elusive. Even as the U.S. and its allies plan troop withdrawals in Afghanistan by year’s end, more forces are being sent to Iraq in noncombat roles to address renewed violence there.

Nevertheless, thousands will return home in the coming months to resume their educations, careers and family lives. Yet the country they come home to isn’t quite the same one it was when Operation Enduring Freedom began.

In particular, a changing economy has created a labor market that has left some people and occupations behind, with many college graduates now waiting tables or pouring coffee as a result. Returning soldiers will have to translate their skills into an ever-evolving workforce with the help of more training and education.

The GI Bill received a reboot a few years ago to increase health and education benefits. Leaders should examine what other aid veterans need to deal with the physical and mental wounds suffered in battle and ease the transition into the workforce. The government invested time and treasure to train them to kill; that same commitment now is needed to help them become successful in civilian life.

A renewed emphasis on veterans services is long overdue and surely a topic a divided nation can agree upon. The free pancakes and parades these heroes get one day a year are not nearly enough to reward their efforts.

Part of that effort is to ensure the abuses and incompetence discovered at the VA are in the past. Earlier this year, it was learned health care wasn’t delivered to disabled vets in a timely manner, leading to dozens of lives lost at a treatment center in Phoenix and ultimately costing the VA director his job. The new director announced Friday that some 1,000 agency workers face disciplinary action for their roles in the scandal and its coverup.

A gridlocked Congress finally found common ground and passed legislation allowing vets to receive paid care from local doctors to help ease the backlog of cases that overwhelmed VA clinics. That should just be the first step toward ensuring vets’ services meet a growing demand.

Given that helping hand, perhaps returning veterans can help bridge the growing political and social divisions that hamper progress on many fronts. The brave warriors who faced roadside bombs and shadowy snipers are as capable of serving as first-rate leaders here as they were overseas. Their can-do spirit may be the boost needed to reawaken the mission focus their fellow citizens seem to lack when there isn’t an election pending, and can spark a burst of civic engagement to trump partisanship and distrust.

Let’s hope that when the next Election Day comes in two years, the United States will be a stronger, safer, more prosperous country for a new president to lead into the next decade. That effort might ensure that the 2020s won’t require another generation of Americans to shed their blood and innocence defending freedom on foreign soil.

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