These are bittersweet times for the nation’s 21.2 million military veterans as the nation observes another Veterans Day.
Unemployment among veterans in general has steadily dropped as the Obama administration and private industry have aggressively pursued programs to employ the country’s heroes and their families.
After a public uproar over an insensitive bureaucracy and incompetent management at the Veterans Administration, the VA in recent months has substantially whittled down its backlog of applications for veterans disability claims from 611,000 to 400,835 — a 34 percent reduction — since peaking in March.
Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled long-awaited final rules on parity in benefits and treatment to require private insurers to cover care for mental health and addiction in the same way they handled physical illness. Former Democratic representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, a co-sponsor of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, said the new rules could particularly help veterans.
“No one stands to gain more from true parity than the men and women who have served our country and now need treatment for the invisible wounds they have brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Kennedy told The New York Times.
More generally, veteran advocates and researchers agree that the plight of many veterans has improved after years of benign neglect by government bureaucrats, sometimes horrifying conditions in many veterans’ hospitals and indifferent or hostile hiring practices by businesses.
“The fact of the matter is that improvements have been made in terms of some of the VA’s procedures and practices in different parts of the country,” said Thomas Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council for Vietnam Veterans of America. “But there still remains a great deal of variability among the 154 medical facilities and the countless numbers of what they call community-based facilities.”
As the nation honors members of the military and veterans today, here is a report card on how veterans are faring:
Mental Health and Suicides: The demands for mental health and addiction treatment by former members of the military are skyrocketing, while the number of suicides among active-duty troops has doubled since 2001, underscoring the continued mental health crisis throughout the military community — one born of years of brutal combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Obama spoke of an “epidemic” of military related suicides during a speech last summer to the Disabled American Veterans Conventions. The suicide rate among active military personnel nearly doubled over the past decade, from 10.3 per 100,000 in 2002 to 18 per 100,000 in 2012, according to The New York Times. Moreover, veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of civilians, according to a Carnegie Knight-News 21 analysis. An estimated 8,000 veterans die by suicide each year, or an average of 22 per day, according to a 2012 VA study.
That rate has remained “consistently high” since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began 12 years ago, according to Veterans' Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL). Miller said that during that same period, the VA has increased its budget by 39 percent and its staffing by 41 percent.
The population of veterans over 50 — more than two-thirds of all veterans — is swelling with aging baby boomers, the Huffington Post noted recently. “Mostly men, they are considered more at-risk of suicide because they tend to be socially isolated; they struggle with physical or mental deterioration; and they possess easy familiarity with firearms,” according to the report.
Some experts warn that the trend among veterans across age grousp will get even worse despite aggressive campaigns by government agencies and private advocacy groups to combat it. David Rudd, a mental health expert who specializes in veterans’ problems, testified before Congress earlier this year that 80 percent of veterans who attempted suicide and survived had received mental health care from the VA one month earlier. He said that underscored the problem that many must wait an average of 50 days before they can gain access to VA treatment.
“My concern is — from the individuals I talk with that we treat to surviving family members of those who have died — often times, it’s an issue of the [VA] system getting in the way to keep an appointment, to get an appointment, or to get to an appointment,” Rudd said, according to a report by NBC News.
“Without a doubt, suicide is a growing problem among military members and veterans,” Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veteran Studies, told The Fiscal Times last week. “The reason that I’m reluctant to describe it as an epidemic, however, is because the rates are now comparable to the civilian population . . . Still, more service members are dying by suicide than they are in combat-related injuries. So this is clearly a problem.”
Bryan, a researcher into techniques for treating victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other serious medical problems that can lead to suicide, said that after years of study, he and other scientists have identified and developed highly effective treatments that could make a big difference in the lives of many veterans. “There still is a lot of ground to be covered, but I would agree we have definitely seen some important advances,” he said.
Unemployment: Veteran unemployment historically has lagged behind the national average, although the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has been considerably worse than for those who didn’t serve in the armed services. That rate climbed, climbing to 10.1 percent in for September, compared to the national unemployment rate of 7.2 percent at that time. The overall unemployment rate for veterans was 6.3 percent in September.
Two years ago, President Obama announced a challengeto the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. In April, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that U.S. businesses had already hired 290,000 veterans and military spouses and were committed to hiring an additional 435,000 over the next five years.
For example, UPS committed to hire 25,000 veterans over the next five years, Home Depot pledged to hire 55,000 in that same period, McDonald’s said it would hire 100,000 in the next three years and Walmart pledged to hire any veteran who served honorably the year after they separate from the service.
While the employment picture has improved markedly for veterans, the rate among the youngest veterans serving in the Army Reserve and National Guard is as high as 20 percent in some parts of the country, Berger said.
“That’s because guard and reserve may be called up again,” he said. “So if you’re an employer, a business person, do you want to hire somebody in a highly skilled position in your company knowing that full well they may be called up for active duty at any time after you hire them?”
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