What we owe our troops

Honor, integrity, courage, loyalty and commitment are just some of the core values that define the U.S. Armed Forces.  While these are also universal American values, we expect a higher degree of fidelity from men and women in uniform.  As we celebrate Memorial Day, let us take time to reflect on what we owe our veterans and how these shared values should influence the way we care for those who have paid the highest price and made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are taught to live by a code of values every day and to assess their own conduct and unit climate in these terms. I see this habit in my husband, a retired Army veteran, and I’ve seen it in the countless service men and women I have met at home and abroad over the past 19 years.  American warriors believe these values are the foundation of combat readiness and battlefield success, and they form a common bond among military comrades in peace and war.     

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In the last decade, our nation has been engaged in two costly conflicts in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  We have invested enormous resources into ensuring that our forces are trained and equipped to for these modern battlefields.  But in the midst of battle, weapons and ammunition are secondary to the courage and loyalty that empower our warriors to fight and win for their country. This is especially true in today’s wars, where there are rarely definitive markers of final victory and where the enemy spurns the laws of war, hides among civilians, and terrorizes the innocent.  We depend on our service members to be faithful to our military and national values even when tested in the most extraordinary circumstances by vicious and murderous enemies. 

It is therefore imperative that we as a nation recognize both the sacrifices made and the challenges that follow military service.  Many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who fought and sacrificed with such exemplary honor in Iraq, Afghanistan and other danger zones since 9/11, are homeless, unemployed, and, in many cases, struggling just to live another day.  If our shared values, which service members not only possess but have lived by, are reflective of how we want our greater society to function, then we must ensure that we care for our veterans and their families. How is it that these young men and women who sacrificed so much of their lives are found struggling to transition into civilian life? While their values and skills should be sought after by society, we continue to see them fall through the cracks.

California is a home to over 1.9 million veterans--the largest veteran population in the United States. Recent studies show that over 70 percent of post-9/11 veterans do not have jobs when they leave the military and that veterans from combat occupation specialties were less likely to be employed than veterans from non-combat occupations.  This absolutely unacceptable and appalling considering these young men and women are the first to be sent to serve in the line of fire.  We are training and equipping these young individuals to go and fight for their country and they should not have to return to fight for a job. We extol the value of combat soldiers and thank them for their service, but too often when it comes to transition and employment assistance our gratitude is little more than lip service. 

In Congress, we are starting to grapple with this disparity and how we can help our combat veterans in particular.  We must harness the strength and resourcefulness of this critical population.  We are beginning to realize the U.S. military needs to be more invested in those who make up their forces beyond the battlefield.  We must train and equip our troops to accomplish the mission, but we must also make greater investments in individual personal development, financial training, career counseling and mental health care services required to prepare veterans for transition to civilian life.  While some may question whether we can afford to make these investments, I believe we can and must prepare our troops to fight and win on and off the battlefield, in peace as well as in war.  It will require a change in culture and significant investment at the federal level and from the American people.  However, we can all agree that veterans deserve a better and greater chance to succeed in civilian life after sacrificing their lives to serve this country. 

As President Abraham Lincoln admonished a war weary nation in 1865, it is the nation’s solemn duty “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."  The same core values of honor, integrity, courage, loyalty and commitment that give our warriors strength, also call us to invest in their welfare when the battle is won.  We must invest the time, energy and funding to build upon these values which have been ingrained in their hearts and minds in order to prepare them for an honorable and successful life after military service.  It is our duty as a nation.

Sanchez represents California’s 46th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1997. She sits on the Armed Services and the Homeland Security committees.