My Turn: Action, not words, needed to assist vets |

My Turn: Action, not words, needed to assist vets

For years, politicians in both parties have wrapped themselves in the flag and engaged in a senseless debate over who is more patriotic and who “supports the troops” the most.

Yet when you look beyond the television and radio ads, the slick mailers, press releases, parades and well staged photo-ops, what you really see is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that distracts the American people from the real problem – our own shameful neglect of veterans and their families.

Wars don’t end with the last shot of battle. They often continue for decades, not years, in the hearts and minds of our warriors. In reality, there are few aspects of a veteran’s life ” from physical and mental health, to relationships, finances, education and employment – that are not somehow impacted by the enormous demands of defending our nation.

Earlier this week, the Alliance to End Homelessness (AEH) reported that 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night (25 percent of the homeless in America) – to include an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. This report comes on the heels of a June study, which showed veterans two times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts.

And that’s not all. Researchers have also looked at high rates of divorce, substance abuse, under-employment and even child abuse. And the findings, which chronicle the long-term human cost of war, are alarming.

These problems aren’t new. We’ve known for decades about their connection with the psychological wounds that many troops (1/3 of those serving in the current war) bring home with them and how they are compounded by the challenge of accessing earned benefits or appropriate support services. Lest we forget that homelessness and suicide, no matter what the circumstances, are entirely preventable.

So why do these problems persist? It’s not for lack of effort by dedicated professionals at the chronically underfunded VA, or the hundreds of non-profits that do much of the heavy lifting in terms of outreach and service delivery. But it is for lack of investment, lack of awareness about the long-term human cost of war and how each of us can help, and worst of all, lack of willingness by politicians to back up their words – words used to stir the emotions of voters and win elections – with real action.

As a career military officer, I was taught that results are the only measure that counts. Government needs to improve and modernize the VA system, yes, but the rest of us must understand that the VA is just one part of a multi-layered aftercare system that we can all support. That’s why in September, I pledged to donate 5 percent of funds raised in my Congressional campaign to organizations serving veterans and families in need. And I challenged every other candidate, in any party, running at every level of government, to do more than just say they “support the

troops” by matching that commitment.

I did it because as a Vietnam Veteran, the son of a World War II Veteran and the father of an Iraq War veteran, this is a deeply personal issue. I did it because I believe that leadership is about solving problems and leading by example, and all the “see how much I support the troops” campaign ads in the world never saved someone’s life. A message to all candidates and their supporters ” don’t wait until January of 2009 to make a difference. We may disagree on issues, but we can bring this country together again by making our campaigns about something much bigger than politics.

Consider the possibilities.

The VA spends $200 million ” $265 million each year on homeless veteran services “much of it through grants to community based non-profit organizations. All told, these efforts reach 100,000 annually, about half the total number of homeless vets cited in the AEH report.

If 2008 campaign spending matched 2006 spending on state races, and 2004 spending on federal races (the last Presidential year), the total would be $4.6 billion. If every candidate committed 5 percent to veteran’s charities, we could match, almost dollar for dollar, the VA’s current funding levels for homeless programs ($230 million). Combined, that’s enough money to double current service

capacity ” reaching an additional 100,000 homeless veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan have already created nearly 2 million new veterans, many of whom will require decades of care.

Repeated and extended deployments are creating more psychological strain than ever before. The tsunami is still a long way from shore, but the VA system is overwhelmed already.

Ultimately, if these new veterans are to fare better than their predecessors, now is the time for action, not words.

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