Though millions of Americans paused to remember those who served our country and honor those who still wear the uniform on Veterans Day, our civilian-military divide persists and must be healed. As a proud family member of three generations who wore the uniform, I’m convinced that we can do more to help.
For years now, we have had raging debates over how to separate the war from the warrior — how to recruit, support, and fund a strong military while debating the policies for which those in uniform will risk their lives. Now more than ever anti-war activists play a strong role in promoting warriors’ benefits. Yet recent surveys of military families reveal an ongoing civilian-military divide. For example, a Blue Star Families release reported over 90 percent of military families believe that the civilian communities do not understand their needs nor support the values and dignity that come with a military career. That is an astounding, depressing number. This is not for lack of information — we have TV, blogs, papers, and magazines devoted to war coverage — but lack of experience. When less than three percent of Americans are serving, there is a cultural divide. Short of returning to a draft, what is to be done?
First, build on the historic support for military families. Among the Democratic Congress’ sterling achievements are bipartisan successes at delivering unprecedented resources to support America’s spouses, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors who have answered the call to service. Highlights of the massive increase in veterans and military families support for which all Americans should be proud include the Post-9/11 GI Bill as well as legislation addressing caregivers, women veterans, rural veterans, homeless veterans, and their families. In addition, the Obama-Biden Veterans Administration launched an historic effort to combat post traumatic stress syndrome and invest in suicide prevention to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) get easier access to the treatment and benefits they need — a critical step forward for the health and well-being of those who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all of our nation’s wars.
Second, improve access to work and college for returning veterans. Fully funding the HIRE Act credits and Post-9/11 GI Bill of Rights will bring more veterans into workplaces and classroom across America where peer-to-peer interaction will broaden the horizons of civilians who don’t know what it’s like to engage in modern warfare.
Third, lift up more veterans voices in public policy debates. No war debate should be complete without its veterans weighing in on strategy and policy. In addition, policy discussions like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are enhanced with the vocal experience-based advocacy by veterans gay (Lt. Dan Choi) and straight (Rep. Patrick Murphy/Sen. John McCain). Active Gold Star and Blue Star Families combined with veterans service organizations bring needed perspective to policy choices. We need decisions with veterans not just for them.
Fourth, destigmatize the mental costs of war. At the 2010 Memorial Day Concert, I sat on the Capitol Mall and experienced the crowd’s positive reaction to Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discussing PTSD to the national audience — a historic cultural and military breakthrough. More of this open discussion will reduce stigma and heal mental wounds of war. We must continue to eliminate combat stress stigma, and support better health care for female veterans including resources to those coping with PTSD and military sexual trauma (MST).
Fifth, pass a veterans budget worthy of their sacrifice. A veterans budget must include proper training and equipment for our troops as they head to battle, health care options to military families, and assistance for veterans and their families when they return home, with an effort to modernize the VA claims processing system. With government spending cuts all the rage among Debt Commissioners and tea party hawks who are occupying ever-more beltway bandwidth, we cannot renege on promises made to military families, nor can we afford to leave any veteran behind.
As the 2010 Veterans Day weekend comes to a close, and hundreds of thousands of military families prepare for next week’s Thanksgiving supper with an empty chair at the family table, we should ask ourselves: what will we do to help? Backing up our Veterans Day rhetoric with everyday resources will not only keep our promises but go a long way toward healing our divisions and working together for a safe and free America.