As the dust settles from another bitterly divisive presidential election, tomorrow Americans will come together in unity and remembrance. Each year, on November 11, we set aside partisan differences and join in parades, service projects, and displays of gratitude in support of veterans. However, over a decade of war has widened the gap between the majority of Americans and the small minority who swear to defend and protect them from danger. Instead of sharing the burden of war, we have become accustomed to yellow ribbons, American flag bumper stickers, and “I Support the Troops” signs. In reality, the community of America’s veterans, especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, face crippling unemployment, an epidemic of suicide, and heart-breaking numbers of homeless.
Our entire nation has felt the effects of economic recession. Unemployment is a serious problem facing many but, according to a recent report from the U.S. Dept. of Labor, 10% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed. A rate which is more than two points higher than the national average. While the rate has dropped for men, it has increased to a staggering 15.5% for female veterans. Much of the problem lies in the difficultly of translating military skills into civilian sector jobs and a stigma that surrounds veterans recently returned from combat zones. While Congress has passed some legislation to address these problems, they have not had a significant impact.
A growing epidemic of suicide has devastated our nation’s veterans and has only recently grabbed national attention. A study from the University of Chicago, published in April, reports that between 2005-2010 one service member took their life every 36 hours. For veterans, the numbers were drastically worse with 18 suicides a day. Every year, more veterans commit suicide than the total number killed in action from the beginning of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Truly heartbreaking is that some of these may have been prevented but solutions have, thus far, proven elusive for the Departments of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs.
The most appalling issue, in my opinion, facing veterans today is homelessness. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that on any given night around 67,000 veterans are homeless. Just writing this statistic makes me angry. Many of these veterans volunteered to protect America and slept in the mud without showers, hot food, or any feeling of safety. The thought of these brave men and women being forced to do the same when they return home is the epitome of disrespect and thanklessness. The problem is compounded by political finger pointing and ineptitude which delays the building and upkeep of shelters.
The first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one. As Americans, we need to educate ourselves to the problems facing the bravest among us. We need to drop the blindfold of thank-yous and yellow ribbons that we have hidden behind for years. No longer can it be acceptable to shake someone’s hand on November 11 and pretend like we share the burden.
What can you do to help? As our newly elected representatives prepare to take office, let them know that veteran’s issues are important to you. Visit your local veteran organizations, such as the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or American Legion and ask what you can do to help veterans in your local area. Check the Veteran Owned Business Directory and patronize veteran owned business in your region. Save you coffee money for one week and donate it to veteran’s organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project who does incredible work to help wounded veterans and their families or Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who work to advance veteran’s issues with Congress, the Dept of Defense, and the Dept of Veteran’s Affairs. Above all else, never forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
The number of Americans who bear the weight of our nation’s wars is too small. Veteran’s and their families represent a small fraction of our country but disproportionately suffer from crippling unemployment, a growing suicide epidemic, and heart-breaking homelessness. We need to work as a nation to spread the weight of war. Hand-shakes and thank-yous can no longer absolve the majority from the problems facing veterans. It is time for America to stand up for those who stood for it.