Originally published in Stars and Stripes
By Robert Weiner and Autumn Kelly
It's Veterans Day time and all the candidates talk about wanting to do more for veterans. From Donald Trump's "They're our greatest people. They're being treated terribly." at his veterans event on the USS Iowa to Carly Fiorina's pointing in a debate to the 307,000 who died while their health benefit applications were pending to Hillary Rodham Clinton's veterans roundtable in Nevada, we hear and read campaign statements honoring our veterans. We will hear more of them on both sides of the aisle in the next few months before Iowa and New Hampshire, right through the general election. It's time for some concrete policy offerings.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald told the National Press Club and world media Friday that he has made progress against delays, but even higher demand for services is making the situation worse -- and that instead of 300,000 appointments waiting over 30 days, that number is now 500,000. He added, "If there is more demand, all we are doing is trying to match." He pleaded for budget support and said, "Congress holds the keys. Congress provides the benefits and funds them."
As the country learned in the latest blockbuster report on VA delays, 307,000 is more than just a few veterans who died while trying to sign up for benefits. The ones now deceased, according to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee findings, were among 800,000 applications still coded as "pending."
Twenty-two veterans take their own life every day. Nonprofit foundations cannot be relied on to do the government's job when more veterans are dying on American soil than combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a recent "Celebrating Our Veterans" event in Grand Rapids, Mich., Lt. Col. Thomas Bowers, the new national secretary for world services of the Salvation Army, asked, "Why do we need 'Wounded Warriors' when the government should be doing the job of caring for veterans when they come home?" Barry McCaffrey, a retired 4-star general who was a commander in the Persian Gulf War (later for all of South and Central America) and drug czar in the Clinton administration, agreed: "It's an excellent question." Why is the government not doing the mission of outside groups when veterans come home with the debilitating injuries shown in the charities' TV ads? Why does the Department of Defense not ensure proper care post-service as servicemen and women go home, and why does the VA not fill in the gap?
Less than half of veterans are enrolled in veterans benefits programs, and only 3.8 million veterans are granted disability benefits. More than 50,000 veterans that served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from battle wounds and 1,500 are amputees; 83 percent lost one or both legs.
Donations given to veteran charities are not solely spent on helping veterans. In 2013, 10 employees of The Wounded Warrior Project earned more than $150,000 a year, with CEO Steven Nardizzi's salary at $333,000, more than the secretary of defense ($200,000) and even more than members of Congress ($175,000). Administrative and salary issues aside, the bottom line is, wounded veterans should not be left to seek charity -- as worthy as any organization might be -- as their only option when the federal government should be caring for its returning soldiers.
According to a VA survey, only 41 percent of veterans said they understood their benefits plan "a lot" or even "somewhat"; 42 percent of veterans who had never used their health care benefits said they were not aware of those benefits or did not know how to apply.
Only half of troops experiencing symptoms of mental illness seek treatment. Stigma stops them -- they do not want to seem weak to their peers. For veterans who served post 9/11, 28 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or both. The rate of major depression is five times as high (and PTSD 15 times as high) among Army soldiers as civilians.
Half of homeless veterans have a mental illness and 70 percent suffer from substance abuse. In 2009, President Barack Obama made a pledge to end veteran homelessness. As McDonald said at the National Press Club last week, there has been a 33 percent decrease in overall veteran homelessness, and people have been fired, prosecuted, and are going to jail for five years for "schedule manipulation." As voted by the Senate on July 28, The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act, if passed in the House, would provide veterans in civilian federal work 104 hours of sick leave for treatment for service-related disability. The 2016 federal budget includes a 7.8 percent increase in VA spending. Those are beginnings.
We cannot expect a plane ride to be an adequate transition back to civilian life. The campaign bluster to help veterans should become action by Congress and the next president.
Robert Weiner is a former White House spokesman, chief of staff of the House Aging Committee, and former spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the House Government Operations Committee. Autumn Kelly is a senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.