On being a veteran in 2021, and how we can help the veterans of tomorrow | Charles D. Allen

The Defense Department must keep the faith with military members and their families by preparing for their inevitable return to society

(Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

By Charles D. Allen 

Over the past few years I have updated “The State of Veteran Affairs” for our community on the challenges faced by those who have worn the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces. As we surpass two decades of war and officially ended military engagements in Afghanistan, it remains important to reflect upon and acknowledge the circumstances of our veterans.

Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret.), (Image via Facebook)

This Veterans Day 2021, our active-duty, reserve-component, and former service members are American citizens who continue to attend to political debates on both domestic and foreign security issues.

Last November, veterans engaged in the democratic process by casting their votes with fellow citizens in the presidential election. One can presume they are concerned about the state of our nation with its increased polarization that has divided its citizenry. An equal concern may have been about how to interpret the series of protest that erupted across the country.

Arguably, the circumstances of 2020 and 2021 have accentuated economic and medical concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic that significantly impact our U.S. veteran population. For this fiscal year 2022, the U.S. government has increased its budget request by more than 10 percent to 269.9 billion dollars for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—a substantial commitment to care for those who have served the nation.

Our society continues to hold the U.S. military in high regard, as reported by Gallup Poll in July 2021, marking 33 years as the institution in which Americans have consistently high confidence along with small business. This is significant given the overall drop in confidence in major U.S. institutions.

Our government has made substantial progress in addressing unemployment, homelessness, and suicide among veterans.

For several years they were at greater risk than their non-serving counterparts for homelessness and suicide, as well as encounters with law enforcement.

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A 2012 study found that about 9 percent of veterans and service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been arrested since returning home. From a 2018 essay, we learn “justice-involved Veterans is used to describe former service members who have been detained by or are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Their involvement can range from arrest, to court involvement, to incarceration in jail or prison.”

The Pew Research Center reported in September 2019 that veterans comprise 8 percent of the U.S. adults.

“For many veterans, the imprint of war is felt beyond their tour of duty and carries over into the transition from military to civilian life,” the Pew study concluded.

Those leaving military service return to a society that has COVID-19 related economic struggles, and substantial growth in the national debt. As the national unemployment rate for October 2021 is 4.6 percent, post-Gulf War II veterans are doing slightly better at 3.8 percent. The good news is the unemployment rate for all veterans at 3.9 percent is lower than the national average.

On another positive note, while the national goal to eliminate veterans’ homelessness by 2015 has not yet been met, homelessness among veterans has declined substantially.

In 2014, the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) jointly reported to Congress that 19 percent of the nation’s homeless adult population were veterans and that about 75,000 veterans had no shelter on any given night.

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The 2020 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) informed Congress that this number had dropped substantially since 2009. Nevertheless, in December 2020 there were an estimated 37,252 homeless veterans with 59 percent of them staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.

Disturbingly, the remaining 41 percent of homeless veterans were “found in places not suitable for human habitation.” Currently representing under 8 percent of the homeless population, our veterans still remain exposed to the plight of having no shelter.

The suicide statistics remain most distressing. The VA’s 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report estimated that 13.7 percent of suicide victims in this country are former service members – remember that veterans are only 8 percent of U.S population.

Through 2019, veterans’ suicide rate was 1.5 times higher than their peers in the general population when adjusted for age and gender.

From 2001 to 2019, U.S. adult suicide rates increased by nearly 55 percent; in 2019, 18-34 year-old post-Gulf War veterans had the highest suicide rate among all veterans. Disturbingly in 2017, 58.7 percent of veterans under recent VA care who died by suicide had been diagnosed with mental health or substance abuse disorder.

And, after adjusting for age, the 2019 rate of suicide among women veterans remains about two times the rate for non-veteran women.

Though some may believe war trauma is a major factor, previous studies found suicides among non-deployed post-Gulf War II veterans were greater than among those who had deployed. From the 2021 annual report, “Age- and sex-adjusted all-cause mortality is greater among Veterans in VHA care with mental health conditions compared to other Veterans in VHA care.”

As our veterans are celebrated in parades and television special programs and as they are treated to free meals on Veterans’ Day and recognition during sports events, we must affirm our nation’s enduring obligation to care for our veterans more effectively.

The Defense Department must keep the faith with military members and their families by preparing for their inevitable return to society. The specter of unemployment, homelessness, and suicide should not be the legacy of military service.

Our nation must always demonstrate that it values the sacrifices of its veterans. This commitment extends far beyond a single day that originally commemorated the victorious conclusion of a war that was to end all wars. U.S. veterans still face “wars” on a daily basis on the home front. We must help them to find peace.

Opinion contributor Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret’d) is a professor of Leadership and Cultural Studies in the School of Strategic Land Power at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.