Supporting Our Troops with Real Action — At Home and Abroad

By Craig Newmark
craigslist founder and customer service representative
San Francisco

The vice presidential debate last week between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin brought an interesting issue back to the forefront of the campaign — veterans’ rights. Both candidates are parents of soldiers and their input should change the way our government treats veterans. Still, thousands of veterans are returning to a country facing a serious economic downturn and they are losing their advocates in Washington. They must remain a priority in these last weeks of the election, because it is clear that their needs have been ignored for too long:

• One and a half million troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 30,000 of them sustained injuries while protecting our country, and hundreds of thousands of other injuries remain unrecorded. The VA disability benefits system is massively backlogged — the Department of Veterans Affairs just isn’t staffed to address all of the claims. Right now there are about 400,000 pending disability claims with an average wait-time of 183 days. The average wait-time skyrockets to 657 days for insurance claims that are appealed. Congress must take real steps to approve these claims immediately.

• Seventy thousand troops have been kept in active duty past their anticipated contract end-dates. Fifteen thousand veterans have been called back to active duty after years of being civilians. The military has broken its contract with our soldiers.

• Furthermore, the secretary of Defense currently uses national security waivers to avoid paying service members “high deployment allowances” of $1,000 per month. We must repeal the waiver of high deployment pay and ensure our troops are properly compensated for their dedication to our security.

• Between 10 percent and 20 percent of all Iraq war veterans have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). However, since these injuries are usually not immediately visible, cannot always be attributed to a single impact or explosion, and often only result in loss of brain function long after the initial injury, thousands of TBI cases remain undiagnosed and untreated.

• Five hundred thousand troops have served more than one combat tour and many have returned to war after only a few months’ rest. Active-duty army combat tours are now 15 months long, with only half the recommended “dwell time” at home between tours. According to a military survey, soldiers serving multiple tours are 50 percent more likely to suffer from a mental health problem.

Veterans must not be forced to face these hurdles alone. It is our American duty to support them with the best resources possible when they return from war.

There are several veterans’ advocacy groups that have made real progress on behalf of our soldiers, and their tenacity needs to be matched by the dedication of our politicians. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.iava.org) delivered a huge victory this year by helping to pass the new GI Bill, much like the World War II-related bill that helped restart our country’s economic engine decades ago. Most of the facts and issues I highlighted here are illustrated much more elegantly on their website.

I see a lot of financial struggle in my day job as a customer service representative, and I want to find real economic support for those who need it the most. To that end I have accepted a position on the IAVA board. As a nerd from New Jersey, I could never begin to understand a soldier’s sacrifice, but I am committed to representing his or her needs.

Last May I began approaching both campaigns to request their commitment to the new GI Bill. While Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) supported the bill wholeheartedly and helped it pass through Congress, I was discouraged by Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) lack of support. Their debate last Thursday reinforced that this presidential race must hold candidates accountable for their actions and their voting records, not vague support of our soldiers.

It is time to get real about direct assistance to veterans and their families. We need to do more to support our troops with real, concrete benefits rather than leave them to fend for themselves when they return to their homeland.