In 2001, they left for Afghanistan, meeting fierce resistance from dug-in al Qaeda fighters. In 2003, they invaded Iraq, toppling a brutal dictator and braving sniper and mortar attacks every step of the way. By 2004, roadside bombs were commonplace.
Now as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, America’s injured veterans face their next daunting challenge: getting what they deserve when they come home.
2014 will be a pivotal year. Throughout it, we must renew our commitment to the issues that will define our veterans’ experience returning from service—particularly long-term care, employment, and mental health support. These brave warriors shouldered the nation’s burden for more than 13 years and many of them will need changing levels of support for years to come —some for an entire lifetime. This is a decades-long commitment, one that most Americans aren’t aware is needed—and it’s one that our government is not entirely prepared to meet.
Therefore, as budget blades in Congress are sharpened, it’s absolutely critical that we work to build a lasting framework for support in these three areas.
#1 Long-Term Care
Thanks to advances in treatment for traumatic injuries, our most severely injured veterans have decades of living ahead of them. Over the years, their needs for caregiver support and other rehabilitation programs, along with their medical status, will shift and evolve. There is no easy answer when it comes to providing long-term care for injured veterans whose caregivers may no longer be able to provide care or to support a long-term path to regaining independence in their lives.
This gap between current support structures and long-term care needs must be addressed jointly by the Department of Veterans Affairs, veteran service organizations, and citizens committed to the lifetime support of our injured veterans. Thanks to generous donors across America, Wounded Warrior Project is committing $30 million in 2014 to cover both the immediate and long-term care costs for 250 of the most severely injured veterans. It’s a commitment that, while desperately needed, is just the beginning for the thousands of severely injured veterans who face similar lifelong challenges.
WWP’s 2013 Annual Survey of almost 27,000 Alumni found nearly 17.8 percent of respondents were unemployed. That’s twice the rate of non-wounded post-9/11 veterans—which has averaged 8.9 percent over the last year. While the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is declining, the former figure is unacceptable and the latter is simply not good enough. Historically, the overall veteran unemployment rate is lower than the national average, but this is clear evidence that we still have much work to do.
#3 Mental Health Support
Invisible injuries are the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and mental health issues are a real long-term concern for this generation of injured veterans. Of the respondents to our Annual Survey, 75 percent experienced post‐traumatic stress disorder from post‐9/11 service, 74 percent experienced anxiety, and nearly 69 percent reported depression.
Overcoming these hurdles requires long-term mental health support—the kind needed long past discharge from the military as our injured veterans build a path toward a new normal.
2014 – Not the End of our Nation’s Commitment
These three areas do not encompass every issue faced by post-9/11 injured veterans, but they represent key obstacles for which we, as a nation, must address. And it will take a unified effort between the Department of Veterans Affairs, dedicated veteran service organizations, and a concerned citizenry to change our current collective trajectory. But we can do this.
For their sacrifice yesterday, Wounded Warrior Project is committed to their tomorrow. We have miles to go, and we should redouble our efforts in 2014 to provide injured veterans with the care they’ve earned.
Nardizzi is the executive director at Wounded Warrior Project. Prior to this, he worked for over 10 years as an attorney representing disabled veterans and veterans service organizations.