By Charles D. Allen
Over the past few years I have shared “The State of Veteran Affairs” to educate our community on the challenges faced by those who have worn the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces. As we approach two decades of war and continue military engagements across the globe, it is important to acknowledge the circumstances of our veterans.
This Veterans Day 2020, our active-duty, reserve-component, and former service members are American citizens who have been paying attention to political debates on both domestic and foreign security issues.
This year, undoubtedly, veterans have engaged in the democratic process by casting their votes in the presidential election. Arguably, 2020 has accentuated economic and medical concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic that significantly impact our U.S. veteran population.
For this fiscal year 2021, the U.S. government has increased its budget request by more than 10 percent to over 243 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 2020, marking 32 years as the institution in which Americans have consistently high confidence along with small business and the medical system.
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. 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.
The Pew Research Center reported in September 2019 that veterans comprise 8 percent of the U.S. adults.
From the Pew study, “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.”
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 2020 is 6.6 percent, post-Gulf War II veterans are doing slightly better at 6.2 percent. The good news is the unemployment rate for all veterans at 5.5 percent is 1.1 percent lower than the national average.
On another positive note, while the national goal to eliminate veterans’ homelessness by 2015 was not 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.
The 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) informed Congress that this number had dropped substantially since 2009. Nevertheless, in December 2018 there were an estimated 37,085 homeless veterans with 61 percent of them staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.
Disturbingly, the remaining 39 percent of homeless veterans were “found in places not suitable for human habitation.” Currently representing under 7 percent of the homeless population, our veterans still remain exposed to the plight of having no shelter.
The suicide statistics remains most distressing. While its 2020 report is delayed, in 2019 VA estimated that 13.5 percent of suicide victims in this country are former service members – remember that veterans are only 8 percent of U.S population.
Through 2017, veterans’ suicide rate was 1.5 times higher than their peers in the general population. From 2005 to 2017, U.S. adult suicide rates increased by nearly 44 percent; in 2017, 18-34 year-old post-Gulf War veterans had the highest suicide rate among all veterans.
Disturbingly, 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 2017 rate of suicide among women veterans was 2.2 times the rate among 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.
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 obligation to care for our veterans.
The Department of Defense 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 the homefront and we must help them to find peace.
Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret) is a professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.