With less than 1% of Americans serving our longest war in history – and suicides, joblessness,
and invisible wounds setting a record pace – we should take a minute every day to thank our
veterans – and do more to help many who are tragically falling through the cracks.
Two-and-a-half million Americans have answered the call and served in combat since 9-11. Almost half a million now suffer the signature injury of Iraq and Afghanistan – the invisible
wounds of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The numbers are staggering. Every 80 minutes a veteran in America commits suicide. The lucky
ones who survive war still face an uphill battle adjusting to peace back at home: for every
combat death in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are 25 suicides. Some 6,500 veterans take
their lives every year, mostly by gun shot.
But these statistics don’t tell the personal stories, like two young men from Delaware with tragic
endings. Army Captain Ian Morrison was a young, good-looking honor student and West Point
graduate who flew Apache helicopters in Iraq in 2011. Less than eight months ago, after trying in
vain six different times to get help for the mental stress he was suffering with – including one time
where he waited for three hours before being turned rudely away – his wife Rebecca found her
husband on the floor in their Texas apartment after he shot himself in the neck. Time magazine
told his story, and how after waiting on hold with the crisis hotline, his final text message to his
wife was “STILL on hold.”
Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times profiled Army Staff Sergeant Dwight
Smith, an Afghanistan veteran who served multiple deployments. Home last Christmas
in Delaware, Dwight snapped while driving his red Hummer. He ran over a 65-year old woman
who was walking her dog. As she lay injured and writhing in pain, Dwight grabbed her off the
asphalt and threw her in the back of his vehicle. She was later found naked in a wooded area.
She had been raped. In a letter to his father from jail, Dwight wrote: “I became addicted to killing
There are no easy answers on how to deal with the signature injuries of PTSD or TBI. In fact,
mental health has long been considered the stepchild of healthcare. It wasn’t
until the 2008 Mental Health Parity bill that health insurance companies were mandated to
give minimum mental health coverage. But President Obama and the Pentagon are making a concerted effort to address
the incredible struggles of our returning veterans. Drastic increases in health care funding -
from $38.7 billion under President Bush’s 2009 VA healthcare budget to $53 billion in President
Obama’s – have led to thousands more mental health care professionals. Private initiatives, like
Give an Hour, have also tried to fill the need — before even more vets fall through the cracks — by inspiring
6,500 mental health care professionals to give one hour of their time each week.
Of course, even those veterans fortunate to avoid the horrors of PTSD or TBI face daunting job
prospects at home. When asked why I joined the military in 1994 after making the dean’s list
in college, I answered, “Because they need folks and they asked me to join.” It helped that my
father and uncles served, and many of my fellow soldiers also saw the military profession as a
calling. But while Gallup ranks the military as one of the most respected professions, returning
veterans still face a 25% higher unemployment rate than their civilian counterparts.
Contributing to this crisis in unemployment is the public’s general unawareness of what the
military does and the skills veterans possess. In 2007, a Military.com study showed that 61%
of the employers surveyed admitted they didn’t completely understand servicemembers’
qualifications. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have been at the forefront in
advocating on behalf of the joblessness issue. Paul Rieckhoff posted today, “[T]hat’s the great
thing about vets – even when they’re down, they’re never out.”
Initiatives like the new 21st Century GI Bill – which doubled college benefits to $90K, books, and
a monthly housing allowance; the Hire Our Heroes tax credit, and the First Lady’s Joint Forces
Initiative, also look to carve out much-needed professional opportunities. But as legislators
seek to avoid the “fiscal cliff” it’s imperative that funding for veterans programs be increased,
not decreased. They didn’t ask to fight these wars – we asked them to. We have no choice but
to ensure they get the treatment they earned, and if Congress does anything to limit access to
mental health care, they have committed one of the most immoral acts in recent history.
While the challenges and statistics can be intimidating, and the personal stories can
break your heart, I hope those reading this will do what they can to motivate a country to do
something more about addressing these challenges. Working together, we can make every
day Veterans Day.