It’s been more than a year since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, and for many veterans the last twelve months have been spent readjusting to life on the homefront. As 2012 draws to a close, veterans and the groups and agencies that support them are taking a look at the progress of the past year, and what else still needs to be done in the coming year, to help service men and women returning home from war.
Jobs Picture Remains Bleak for Vets
Over the past year, the nation has made progress in reducing the unemployment rate among veterans. The unemployment rate for newer veterans — those who’ve served post-9/11 — stood at 11.1 percent in November 2011, several notches higher than the nation’s overall unemployment rate. It’s fallen only slightly this year, to 10.0 percent — still well above the national average.
Overall, the jobless rate for all veterans fell to 6.6 percent, suggesting that newer veterans are having a tougher time as they transition back to civilian life.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Anthony Pike, who served as a public affairs specialist in Iraq, said that, in some cases, the solutions should be easier.
“Why can’t the guy who’s driving trucks in Iraq come home and drive a truck at home? Why can’t the medic who’s, you know, patching people up in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can’t he drive an ambulance and be an EMT?” he asked. “Those are certifications that are easy fixes.”
(Photo: Several job fairs have been geared specifically for returning vets. Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC)
Paul Reickoff, founder of the non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes veterans already possess the skills that’ll make them an asset to any workplace.
“Veterans represent the future of American and could represent the future of your company,” Reickoff said. “They’re tough, they’re tactically and technically proficient, they’re great with technology, they have strong values, they work well in teams.”
IAVA regularly supports bills that encourage hiring veterans. But some measures have become causalities of the partisan gridlock and spending constraints that have come to define Congress. In September, a veterans jobs bill that would have created a $1 billion jobs program was blocked by Senate Republicans who said it violated spending limits instituted by Congress last year.
Education Options Open Avenues for Returning Service Members
Some advocates say the new G.I. bill has been an invaluable tool in getting veterans back to school, and eventually back into careers in the civilian world.
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics, 657,000 veterans and 215,000 military service members were enrolled in undergraduate institutions in 2007-2008.
Army veteran Oscar Rodriguez , who deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, is using the G.I. bill to study criminal justice at Berkeley College. He wants employers to know the military’s already given him important skills.
“We’re not expecting a handout,” he said. “We just want an opportunity.”
Alicia Richardson, who worked as a surgical technician in the Army, is now pursuing international business studies at Brooklyn College using the G.I. Bill.
“We can be trustworthy, and we have the leadership skills,” she said. Richardson’s hoping employers who commit to hiring veterans make good on their promises.
In the meantime, many say the G.I. Bill is opening up doors for veterans to supplement, or start their college education, by providing “basically the same benefits that the World War 2 vets had,” said Jacob Worrell, an army veteran who works for IAVA. “The chance to actually fund their entire post-secondary education, which is huge.”
While veterans are taking advantage of the educational opportunities their service has provided, the actual the graduation rate of veterans have raised concerns. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki noted in 2011 that among all students entering four-year college only 57 percent graduate, and early indications suggest that veterans’ graduation rates are much lower. According to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, just 35.9 percent of veterans who entered college in the 2003-2004 academic year got a Bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with almost 50 percent of non-veteran students.
Stress of War Leads to Trauma at Home
Mental health issues that have plagued vets for decades present another hurdle to obtaining jobs and transitioning back to civilian life. As many as one in five new veterans come home suffering from a mental health issue, according to an IAVA analysis of a RAND Corporation study. From Post-Traumatic Stress to Traumatic Brain Injury, advocates say mental health issues have been one of the defining problems facing this generation of veterans.
The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder says anywhere between 11 and 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may suffer from PTSD.
A particularly troubling trend over the course of the year has been the increase in suicide rates among members of the military. The VA has estimated that as many as 18 veterans a day commit suicide. Earlier this month, the army released data showing 177 cases of potential suicides. For the month of November, there were 12 potential suicides, following 19 the previous month. The cases among reservists and National Guard members, or non-active duty military members, remained high as well. There were 15 cases under investigation in November, according to the most recent figures.
(Photo: PFC Joseph DeWitt, from Suffolk County, NY, suffered from PTSD and died in 2008. Warren Zinn/Army Times)
“It’s really shocking to see that the suicide numbers for troops and veterans between January and June of 2012 were higher than the number of people killed in Afghanistan,” Reickoff said.
But he points out that it’s not where the problem starts. Often, there are cracks in the system that’s supposedly designed to help returning service members.
“It’s a culminating event that often results from the failure to address a spectrum of transitional challenges,” he explained. “It’s mental health, it’s financial, it’s family, it’s sometimes the VA…folks shouldn’t have to wait months to see a doctor or to navigate bureaucracy to get care.”
Others say there are some models that have proven effective in at least assessing those at risk. Doctor Melissa Earle, a professor at Touro College’s Graduate School of Social Work, said early assessment is key, and points to models created by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the VA as good starts for service providers.
“Even if you’re doing some case management services, they’ve given folks very simple questions to ask to make sure that the service member not only needs whatever it is, the practical services you may be providing, but also the mental health service,” she said.
Many, including Earle, say first and foremost it’s integral to reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental illnesses, particularly in the military.
Andrew Roberts, director of the Office of Military and Veterans Liaison Services for the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, has been working to do that.
(Photo: Andrew Roberts in his office at NSLIJ. Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC)
As an army veteran, he’s shared his own story about seeking help. He said connecting veterans to services is essential, particularly when it comes to the high suicide rate. That’s where civilians can come in, too.
“Part of that solution is going to be for communities to recognize and figure out ways that they can identity veterans or military families that are in trouble,” he said.
He says the Joining Forces initiative, which aims to link vets with the help they need in areas including health and employment, as a good model for helping service men and women. And an executive order signed by President Obama earlier this year aims to build upon efforts to prevent suicide, in part by expanding the Veterans Crisis Line and hiring more mental health professionals in the coming months
Closer to home, Roberts is also spearheading a new initiative at NSLIJ: a behavioral health clinic for vets and their families, in Bay Shore, Long Island. Roberts says it’s believed to be the first partnership of its kind between the VA and the non-profit hospital, where service members and their loved ones can receive mental health care services at the same location.
Delays at the VA
Despite some progress in other areas, many veterans are still facing a tough time seeking benefits. In August, the Center for Investigative Reporting studied and mapped delays at Veterans Affairs offices across the nation, finding that the average wait time was six months or more. The study also found worse delays in major cities including New York, where the average wait time was even longer, at more than a year and a half.
Army veteran Michael Faulkner thinks correcting that backlog should be a first priority.
“I think the number one problem right now is the fatal funnel created at VA with the backlog of claims,” he said. “Everywhere there’s a delay, a significant delay, we’re hurting a veteran.” Faulkner’s still waiting on his own claim in Atlanta, Georgia.
The VA has vowed to end the delay in responding to compensation claims in 2015.
While IAVA’s Reickoff noted some progress in 2012 he said there’s still more work to be done. He said goals in 2013 include continuing work to improve access to medical care, helping veterans find employment and providing incentives for employers to do so, and creating more services to specifically support female veterans.
Veterans issues aren’t likely to fade away anytime soon. There are more than 1.4 million men and women on active duty. And as of mid-December 56,865 National Guard and Reserve members have been called up. With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan expected by the end of 2014, the urgency of addressing the defining issues of this generation of service men and women will continue to be a major focus in the coming years.