Memorial Day time for civilians to pledge action to aid soldiers, vets

This Memorial Day, we should look hard at the costs — far beyond what's demanded by their work on battlefields — people in uniform bear to protect us.


The rate of military suicides rose 80 percent between 2002 and 2009, from 10.3 suicides per 100,000 to 18.5 suicides per 100,000 service members. Last year, more service personnel died as a result of suicide than from fighting in Afghanistan;

A 2011 survey released recently found that one in five female service members said they had been subjected to unwanted sexual contact. The number of reported sexual assaults have increased since then.

Repeated deployments to war zones of three to five times or more have become common. The likelihood of psychological problems, alcohol abuse, low morale, family stress and other issues increase with each deployment.

The unemployment rate of post 9/11 veterans — 9.4 percent in February — is much higher than the 7.7 percent national average. Last year, the unemployment rate of young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reached almost 13 percent, for veterans under 24 it was 30 percent.

Disability claims awaiting action at the Veterans Administration have almost reached 900,000, about 250,000 of those veterans have been waiting for disability benefits for over 125 days, many for more than a year.

This is a shameful reflection of the value our society places on those who serve, both while they're in the military and in later life.

Congress is taking the sex abuse issue more seriously as the number of women in the chambers increases. It should move quickly to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's proposal to remove those cases from adjudication by the commanding officer, where too often the accused are pardoned and accusers fear retribution, and place them under the jurisdiction of independent military prosecutors, the system that most of our allies use.

This won't solve the cultural issues that enable abuse — in recent weeks three officers responsible for preventing sex abuse have themselves been charged with harrassment — but it's an important step to assure complaints will get a fair hearing.

Addressing suicide and the damage of multiple deployments requires a clear-eyed, comprehensive examination of the resources we put into mental and physical health care for soldiers, and the cultural barriers within the military to seeking help for psychological problems.

VA Secretary Eric Shenseki, himself a retired general and combat veteran, has promised that the half-a-billion dollar effort to automate the VA claims system will reduce processing time to no more than 125 days by the end of 2015. The VA, to its credit, is transparent, acknowledging the backlog and tracking it — and progress toward the 2015 goal — online at www.vba.va.gov/reports/aspiremap.asp.

One of the explanations for the difficulty veterans have finding work is that this is the first generation for which most of the people doing hiring are not themselves veterans, so they don't necessarily understand how military training and experience can translate into the workplace.

To at least partially address this issue, the Obama administration last month announced a credentialing program that will give members of the military the opportunity to earn civilian certification in some technical fields before they leave the armed services.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has adopted veterans' issues as one of her areas of focus, also announced recently that several large corporations have pledged to hire veterans and their spouses. These are positive steps but vigilance is the key. Previous efforts to spur hiring of veterans with tax credits have not yielded as many jobs as hoped.

That's a shame, and perhaps an indication of how the transition to an all-volunteer force has led to a civilian population too removed from those who choose to protect us.