February 20, 2014

Former president’s attention to veterans shines light on challenges they face

The Freedom Tower in New York City and its nearby memorial are a physical manifestation of the nation’s response to the September 11th attacks.

The Freedom Tower in New York City and its nearby memorial are a physical manifestation of the nation’s response to the September 11th attacks.

People respond to tragedy differently. For many, it compels reflection.

For others, it demands action, as it did for millions of Americans who enlisted in the military after 9/11, many of whom subsequently served in Iraq or Afghanistan — sometimes both.

More than a decade later, the wars are thankfully winding down and veterans are returning to their homes and families, and hopefully some state of normalcy.

But as they begin to recast their lives as civilians, more than 2.5 million post-9/11 vets face new challenges many didn’t anticipate and many in the civilian world do not appreciate.

As the commander in chief who oversaw the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, former President George W. Bush bears a special responsibility for these military servicemen and women. And it is one he willingly accepts.

At the Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors summit in Dallas on Wednesday, Bush addressed what he calls the civilian-military divide. He pointed to a statistic from a forthcoming report that found “71 percent of Americans said they do not understand the problems facing our veterans.”

Problems like unemployment and post-traumatic stress.

It’s shocking that, as members of the most trusted institution in America, these men and women persistently struggle to find work. Military service has become a barrier to entry for many.

The average rate of post-9/11 veteran unemployment in 2012 was almost 10 percent, down from 12.1 percent the previous year, but still unacceptably high.

This is in part because service on the battlefield equips servicemen and women with a unique skill set that doesn’t often translate to the civilian workforce.

Some businesses have recognized their responsibility, launching initiatives to recruit, retain and support veterans.

One such effort, The 100,000 Jobs Mission, consists of more than 130 private-sector companies (including Lockheed Martin). Last year, the effort surpassed its goal of employing 100,000 vets by 2020 and has since doubled its commitment.

But understanding the underlying and often complex causes of veteran unemployment and job retention is necessary to fixing the problem.

Post-traumatic stress — the former president says that calling it a “disorder” only stigmatizes a treatable condition — afflicts between 13 and 20 percent of returning veterans.

Many businesses hesitate to hire employees suffering from PTS and its many manifestations — depression, panic attacks, difficulty maintaining relationships.

The continued efforts to normalize PTS, treating it as a military injury instead of a mental disorder, are paramount for vets seeking to fully re-engage in the way of life they so fiercely defended.

Bush is not the only leader to draw attention to returning military. His successor, President Obama signed the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, which offers tax credits to employers hiring former military.

But Bush’s relationship to the issue is unique and his platform to address it is powerful.

The summit was part of the Military Service Initiative, one of six programmatic areas that the Bush Center and Library, housed on Southern Methodist University’s campus, has selected for study and advocacy.

The president’s credibility on veterans’ issues will bring great notoriety to the Center and bring great scholars, speakers and experts to the DFW area, which has the potential to become a powerhouse of thought on this most important topic.

Over the next five years, more than a million Americans will complete their military service.

It would be a tragedy of unimaginable scale to stand by tacitly and watch as they endure further struggles because of their service and sacrifice.

How America responds to this challenge is as important as how it responded to the tragedy behind it.

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