Defend our veterans at home like they defend us abroad

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Media accounts highlight the plight of veterans, many returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to experience heightened feelings of isolation. The list of afflictions is vast, including heightened rates of suicide, unemployment, marital problems, substance abuse, access to firearms, and homelessness – and the interplay has compounding effects. Though all of these trends are alarming, perhaps most worrisome are unemployment and suicide, which show vividly how veterans are struggling to assimilate into society, both practically and psychologically.

Suicide rates among uniformed personnel have reached an apex, and outnumber average rates for the general population for the first time in history, as of 2010. Meanwhile, unemployment rates among veterans in August 2012 were 2.5 percentage points higher than the national average of 8.1%. A DoD-sponsored study released by the Institute of Medicine in September also reveals ten-year increases in heavy drinking, binge drinking, and prescription drug abuse among military members.

The suspected driver behind many of the problems afflicting veterans is the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) among veterans. Whereas TBI typically results from physical impact, like the kind delivered by an IED blast, exposure to combat is not necessarily a prerequisite for PTSD. In fact, the simple stress of training and waiting for deployment orders can be enough to lead to symptoms. According to a recent American Forces Press Service release, roughly 15% of active duty service members and veterans suffer from impaired functioning in some capacity as a result of PTSD.

Retired Army general and veterans-health advocate Peter Chiarelli cites vast improvements in the reduction of stigmas surrounding PTSD within the services. Nonetheless, he makes a clear distinction between acknowledging a problem and being properly equipped to fix it: the task for Washington in assuring that veterans are treated properly for physical, mental, and emotional ailments stemming from service.

Despite skepticism regarding continued presence in Afghanistan, a 2010 Rasmussen Reports study and a 2009 American Enterprise Institute report rate overall American opinions of the military in the range between 75-80% positive. Compared to ratings for the president and Congress, civilian approval and support for the armed services much more closely resemble the traditional definition of a “mandate.” Americans clearly feel a strong allegiance to the people who defend the nation, yet that preference in support for veterans’ care and well-being is not perfectly reflected through budgeting processes. The ideal democratic budgeting method would be an allocation of resources echoing the preferences of a majority. However, this principle is extremely difficult to encapsulate pragmatically. The data reveal an important message to policymakers as they sort through deficit reduction strategies: Americans maintain an overwhelming preference to support military/veteran well-being through domestic aid. And in many regards, they are getting it right thus far.

Recently announced Department of Veterans Affairs programs designed to improve quality of life for former servicemen include $28 million in grants for housing of homeless veterans, the full allocation of 45,000 available Veterans Retraining Assistance Program slots doling out roughly $1,500 monthly for a year of education, and a joint $100 million VA/DoD study on the effects of PTSD and TBI. A large part of the reason VA can continue to program funds when other departments are in a state of limbo pending sequestration is that lawmakers never put VA funding in jeopardy under the provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

According to a Professional Services Council report, the Department of Veterans Affairs is the only civilian department or agency whose discretionary spending for FY2013 would not be reduced under the sequester, whereas other agencies would face reductions of 7.8% on average. In an ever-polarized setting, this was a rational, reasonable commitment by Congress to veterans. Though military and veterans issues like the defense budget and the proposal to create a Veterans Job Corps will continue to fuel partisan bickering in the coming months, Congress’s loyalty to former servicemen as reflected in a stable VA budget was a smart move.

Chodkowski is a policy analyst at the non partisan American Security Project.