President Obama focused his Veterans Day remarks on the growing ranks of former troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now searching for new ways to serve their country at home.
“We’re in the midst of a new wave of American veterans,” said Obama, referring to a generation of men and women who have weathered the longest stretch of war in U.S. history. Those veterans have struggled in recent years to get care from an overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve faced a higher unemployment rate than their civilian peers and an increase in suicides.
At Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, Obama spoke of progress in reducing wait times for veterans and a plummeting unemployment rate among vets. He stressed the country’s continuing obligation to do more to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs and help veterans find work.
The tenor of the president’s visit to the cemetery this Veterans Day offered a striking counterpoint to past trips. On his first Veterans Day as president, Obama made his way somberly through Section 60 of the cemetery, where the dead from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried. Clad in a black overcoat, he spent time with families of the deceased who had come to stand vigil in the cemetery despite a cold rain. Back then, Obama was weighing whether to send tens of thousands of new troops to Afghanistan.
Six months ago, appearing at Arlington to mark Memorial Day, Obama touted the end of an era — the first Memorial Day in 14 years in which the United States was “not engaged in a major ground war.”
“We’ll continue to bring them home and reduce our forces further, down to an embassy presence by the end of the year,” Obama said in the spring.
Since then, Taliban gains in Afghanistan and the largely stalemated fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have forced Obama to backtrack on plans to bring home U.S. troops. American soldiers are no longer involved in daily ground combat, but the wars continue.
The president barely mentioned today’s wars in his Veterans Day remarks this year. Instead, the focus was on service members returning home. More than 1 million veterans of the post-9/11 wars have returned to civilian life over the past decade, and 200,000 more will leave the military this year to start civilian lives.
Obama described improvements at VA since last year’s scandal over fabricated records and long waits for health care.
“We have made historic investments to boost the VA budget, expand benefits, offer more mental-health care and improved care for our wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” Obama said. VA has added 1,400 doctors and seen more than 7 million more patients than it did in the year before the crisis.
“We’ve now slashed the disability claims backlog by nearly 90 percent,” Obama said, referring to the time it takes for veterans to begin receiving their veterans benefits. The president also praised VA for helping tens of thousands of homeless veterans find places to live.
The bulk of Obama’s remarks, though, focused on veterans’ employment. For years, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have suffered from a higher unemployment rate than their civilian peers. The improving economy and falling jobless rate have lessened the problem. Just two years ago, nearly 10 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were unemployed. Today their jobless rate stands at 4.6 percent.
Still, the president made the case that the country must continue to do more to help veterans find steady jobs. “They’re exactly the kind of people we need to keep America competitive in the 21st century,” Obama said. “That’s why more and more companies are hiring veterans. Not out of charity, not out of patriotism or some moral obligation — although they do have those obligations — but because they know it’s good for their bottom line.”