Ky. Voices: Show returning troops they are appreciated

As thoughts for this time of the year turn to counting our blessings, may I suggest that chief among them is the willingness of our fellow Americans to defend our freedom, generation after generation.

Since Pearl Harbor 70 years ago, three generations of Americans have answered our nation's call to duty in her defense. Today, we are in the 11th year of the global war on terror. Over 6,000 American service members have been killed and over 47,000 have suffered major physical wounds.

That number doesn't include those suffering with the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

With the mission in Iraq ended and the drawdown in Afghanistan beginning, what happens next?

First, assuming we aren't pulled back into a similar deployment cycle due to an overseas crisis, our military gets to take a breather of sorts. But this respite will continue to include global Navy deployments and the assignment of ground troops in South Korea, Germany and elsewhere.

Second, the return of the bulk of the deployed force, a source of great joy to their families, also represents a significant additional burden on the services and financial benefits promised to our nation's warriors and their families.

It's a simple math equation to know that any dramatic shrinkage of the defense budget will drive serious reductions in manpower and services to military families.

But, we should not accept the idea that any budget shrinkage will also somehow minimize our core obligation to our nation's warriors and their families.

The American military of the 21st century has quietly made history by serving longer in combat than soldiers during any other conflict.

The deployment cycles have been so long and so frequent, that of the more than 2 million who have been deployed, many of them have served multiple combat tours in the Middle East.

It's unprecedented, as is the widespread call-up of National Guard and Reserves to fight. The burden of reintegration into civilian lifestyles and employment falls especially heavily on these citizen-soldiers.

To illustrate, USA Cares, a military-focused assistance nonprofit, has provided over $8 million in non-repayment grants to thousands of post 9/11 military members and their families since 2003.

A typical week will see up to $20,000 in grants to military folks in times of financial need.

Over half of this amount goes to support housing needs, including foreclosure and eviction prevention. For the past three years, 70 percent of those needing housing help have been National Guard and Reserves.

Additional needs can cover a broad range, such as a family needing help with essentials like food, or moving an entire family several states away when a veteran meets good fortune and finds a new job.

USA Cares helps post-9/11 military members and veterans in all 50 states. For example, Kentucky personnel have received over $800,000 in direct grants. That assistance has helped to save nearly 100 Kentucky military homes from foreclosure.

I am often asked "What is the best way to express gratitude to the military?" There are several ways:

■ Volunteer at a veteran's hospital.

■ Donate to legitimate military charities, especially those focused on military familes.

■ Use your citizen power and encourage your elected representative to make good on our nation's obligation to support the troops.

■ Hire a vet. It's just good business.

■ Say, "Thank You" when you encounter a solider in uniform. As a Navy and Vietnam veteran, I guarantee they really do appreciate that gesture of support.

It's been said that the measure of a great nation is how it treats those who fought and bled for it. So let it be said that in 2012, the people of the United States, in deep gratitude, answered their call to duty by supporting our heroes as they came home.