The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a nationwide poll of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, revealing the profound and enduring effects of these conflicts on the 2.6 million who have served. Explore what we found.
George Washington once declared that “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
Over the past 13 years, roughly 2.4 million active and reserve members of the U.S. armed forces have left military service and returned to civilian life. In the next four to five years, another million, most of whom are post-9/11 veterans, will make this transition.
For a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who has served in a military at war for more than a decade, reintegrating into civilian life can be challenging, as this new Washington Post poll attests. Are we doing enough to ease this transition for those who have served and sacrificed so much on our behalf? While there have certainly been some important initiatives, our honest answer must be no. There is much more we can and should be doing.
A nationwide poll of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reveals the profound and enduring effects of war on the 2.6 million who have served.
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The transition from uniformed duty to civilian status is not just a change of jobs, it’s a change in virtually every aspect of life: their careers, responsibilities, jobs, homes, communities, lifestyle, health care, training and more. If service members have families, the transition will also mean big changes for spouses and children, maybe even more so because these family members largely have no access to continuing support from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Not surprisingly, half of the respondents in the poll said their readjustment to civilian life was difficult. They cited various reasons, from struggles in finding a good job to inadequate assistance from the government. What is striking about this data is how multidimensional the problem is — showing how difficult it is to solve.
In recent years, the federal government has done a great deal to assist transitioning veterans. In 2009, Veterans Affairs implemented the new post-9/11 GI Bill, which has resulted in more than 1 million veterans going back to school. This generation of veterans considers the program a bright spot: 48 percent of those polled reported having taken advantage of these generous education benefits, and of those who have not, 73 percent expressed interest. In response to legislation in 2011, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs have also collaborated to institute a mandatory 40 hours of instructor-led training to help active, reserve and Guard veterans with their transition, from financial planning to translating their military skills into a civilian resume.
Since 2009, Veterans Affairs has also expanded access to health care for more than 800,000 new patients while cutting the growth in medical costs from more than 8 percent per year to less than 3 percent. It also launched the Blue Button personal electronic health record and put $5 billion worth of software code into open source, enabling millions of Americans outside Veterans Affairs to use it for free. At the same time, it reduced veterans’ homelessness by one-third during the worst recession since the Great Depression and provided access to previously denied disability benefits for more than 800,000 veterans with conditions related to Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans polled clearly believe that whatever improvements have been made thus far are not enough. Only 41 percent rated the job the government is doing in meeting the needs of their generation of veterans as good or excellent, while 56 percent rated it as not so good or poor. Interestingly, they were far more positive when characterizing their own experience, with 59 percent saying the government had done a good or excellent job. It is hard to say what may account for this difference; it could be anecdotal information from peers or the negative coverage these issues receive in the news media — or both.
One crucial area of disconnect between veterans’ expectations and reality is their prospects for civilian employment. Sixty-six percent of the veterans polled believed they have the education and skills to be competitive in today’s job market; 81 percent thought their skills would translate well to the civilian job market; and 62 percent thought employers would see military service as an advantage. These high expectations contrast with what many post-9/11 veterans are experiencing: Whereas the jobless rate for all U.S. veterans was just 6.9 percent in October 2013 — slightly lower than for the overall population — the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 stood at 10 percent.
The truth: It is not easy for a service member who has conducted hundreds of patrols in a combat zone to translate that experience into skills that a civilian employer can understand. And with less than 1 percent of Americans having served in the military, misconceptions abound, such as the assumption that every veteran has PTSD or that service members are trained only to take orders, not to lead.
The Obama administration has sought to increase veterans’ employment with its “Joining Forces” campaign. In August 2011, President Obama challenged American businesses to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. Since then, U.S. companies have hired and trained more than 380,000 veterans and military spouses, and have also committed to hire or train an additional 435,000 veterans and their spouses by the end of 2018. In addition, in June 2012, the administration announced the Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force — setting a goal that by the end of 2015, all 50 states will have taken legislative or executive action to help veterans get the credentials they need to successfully join the civilian labor market. Meanwhile, nonprofit groups, such as the Mission Continues and Team Rubicon, are helping post-9/11 veterans find a new sense of mission through serving their communities.
Such efforts are critical to addressing the needs of transitioning veterans. But even more needs to be done.
First and foremost, the government must partner more effectively with private and nonprofit sector institutions that are employing and supporting veterans. In practice, this means navigating complex federal ethics regulations to enable these partnerships to work, and sharing information between the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs on one side, and private companies and nonprofits on the other. The president has rightly highlighted the many military skills that meet the needs of employers, for instance in accounting, materials management and health care. What’s harder to measure is the leadership training these men and women received every day. Senior military and civilian leaders must do more to make the business case for veterans in the private sector.
Second, government agencies must partner more effectively with each other. Just consider the failed Pentagon-Veterans Affairs effort to build an integrated electronic health record. Even though Veterans Affairs offered the Defense Department a proven, free, open-source software solution that could be adapted to the Pentagon’s needs at low cost, the Defense Department chose to acquire a new proprietary electronic health record at the cost of billions of dollars. Seamless transition from military to civilian life should begin with health records, ensuring that conditions and injuries already documented in the Defense Department’s system are automatically transferred to Veterans Affairs.
Similarly, Defense and Veterans Affairs should work more closely with state and local governments. Veterans don’t come home to federal agencies; they come home to communities, and meeting their greatest needs often falls on the shoulders of county and city organizations. Military bases, VA hospitals and other federal entities should look for ways to share information and services with their state and local counterparts to better serve veterans in their communities.
Third, we need to better understand the demographics of the veterans population in this country in order to inform public policy. To that end, the Center for a New American Security has launched the Veterans Data Project, a research effort to gather, integrate and analyze publicly available data on veterans to assess their current and future needs. Such analytic efforts should be fully leveraged by Veterans Affairs, Defense, and state and local governments, and companies to inform their plans, programs and partnerships for veterans.
Supporting the transition of service members to civilian life is not just a way to keep faith with the men and women who have put everything on the line for their country. It is also an investment in the strength, dynamism and security of our society.