The Memorial Day commemoration today honors the 1.25 million Americans who have fallen for their country. It also affords an opportunity to show concern for living service members, active and retired.
The picture is complex and contradictory. The U.S. military is more capable than ever, and well provided for despite threats of mindless across-the-board spending cuts under the so-called sequestration. At the same time, the armed forces are plagued by soaring suicide rates, rising incidents of sexual assault and worn down by multiple tours of combat duty.
Conditions for veterans are similarly mixed. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget has more than doubled in less than a decade; the U.S. and China are the only countries whose military budgets exceed what the U.S. alone spends on veterans. An updated version of the GI bill has sent more than 1 million veterans to college. Thanks to White House prodding, employment opportunities for former service members are improving. Still, joblessness and homelessness are higher for veterans than the national average, and many face lengthy bureaucratic nightmares to get their military disability benefits.
“Our active military force today is remarkable; never has a force been so continuously involved for so long in combat,” says Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat who served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and is an influential voice on military matters. “This service has taken a toll; we see many pressures. There are other pressures on those who’ve served before.”
Most experts agree with Reed’s assessment of the current force. “There never has been in the history of the planet a military even three-quarters as good as ours,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a military affairs scholar at the Brookings Institution.”
If the war in Afghanistan winds down next year, as President Barack Obama has promised, and if no new conflict arises, the military budget can be pared back, though more modestly and carefully than it would be under sequestration.
O’Hanlon, a close associate of General David Petraeus, the former Central Intelligence Agency chief, argues that the active duty Army and Marine levels can be reduced; the Navy, rather than increasing the size of its fleet, can deploy its resources more efficiently, and the Air Force only needs about half of the new F-35 joint strike fighters it has ordered.
The social problems may be thornier. The suicide rate for active-duty personnel reached a record high last year. While the Pentagon is devoting more resources to mental health, tragedies remain too common.
About 15 percent of the military are women; sexual assaults have risen, capturing the attention of both the president and Congress. In the military justice system, commanding officers have the authority to change the penalties in an assault conviction; the administration and lawmakers are seeking to change that loophole. Some want to go so far as requiring an automatic dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault.
The outlook for veterans is full of good as well as disturbing news. The robust defense budget is largely intact, even under sequestration. And despite the unemployment rate of almost 10 percent among veterans of the post-Sept. 11 era, there’s progress on the jobs front. The armed services’ training and job-placement efforts are better, and the continuing education benefits are substantial.
Led by the first lady, Michelle Obama, the administration has received commitments to hire veterans from major corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., McDonald’s Corp., Blackstone Group LP and Home Depot Inc.
Serious problems persist. About 15 percent of all veterans are homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
And the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to fix the lengthy delays in processing benefits. There are more than 500,000 claims that have been pending for more than four months; some are held up for years. This infuriates veterans.
Reed notes that the head of the VA, General Eric Shinseki, is himself a veteran with disabilities -- part of his foot was blown off in Vietnam -- and “understands what these veterans are going through.” He says the results so far are unsatisfactory, however.
Two-thirds of the senators have called on Obama to become personally engaged in addressing this debacle. Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that in March, he suggested to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that the president should speak out on this issue. “We’re still waiting,” Rieckhoff says.
Whatever the difficulties, the U.S. treats returning warriors with a regard, affection even, that once was lacking.
During Vietnam, “the whole country turned against the war,” says Colin Powell, who served as an Army officer in Vietnam and later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.
Now, with a volunteer military, the public has shown appreciation and respect for veterans since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, Powell notes with satisfaction.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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