After a decade of conflict in Iraq, our troops have come home, producing the largest increase in the number of American veterans since the 1970s. After Vietnam, an America tired of war and consumed with political angst neglected its veterans. Fortunately, the veterans of today are receiving the homecoming they deserve. To make that homecoming complete, America needs to ensure that our returning warriors have access to one of the most important benefits they have earned: health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A Health Care Challenge: Fewer Battlefield Deaths, More Injuries
The United States military is the most technologically sophisticated fighting force in the world. This technological advantage means that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are subject to fewer casualties than in Vietnam. But those who do receive injuries are significantly more likely to survive because of body armor and the high quality of medical care. According to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, only 13 percent of those injured in Iraq were likely to die compared to those injured in Vietnam, where the fatality rate was nearly 25 percent. But our ability to save lives also means that many more veterans are returning home after losing limbs or suffering from the after-effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from blasts experienced in battle or as a result of improvised explosive devices.
A frightening aspect of TBI is that it can be quite difficult to diagnose. It is possible for someone exposed to an explosion to show no signs of injury until weeks or months later when symptoms—such as depression, anxiety or anger issues—become apparent. Untreated, these symptoms can lead to major depression, substance use problems, unemployment and ruined family relationships. In addition to TBI, other problems—from back injuries to exposure to toxins—may only become apparent after the veteran has been separated from service for months or even years.
VA Health Care is Available—But Not Automatically
Service members leaving active duty are not automatically enrolled in VA health care. VA and the Department of Defense work closely together to inform service members about their health care options at demobilization events and during the separation process. But many service members are so focused on preparing to go home or bewildered by details that the health care message doesn’t really catch their attention.
Because of the potential for hidden injuries—and to ensure veterans receive the care they have earned—the VA is engaged in an unprecedented effort to reach out to encouraging them to enroll in VA health care. As part of this effort, Altarum works with VA’s Health Eligibility Center to reach out to veterans about VA health care through many forms of media and through partnerships with government and community organizations.
One component of this outreach strategy has been to target veterans looking for work through online job services. Many veterans may not feel the need for health care right away, but they are quite likely to need a job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2011 unemployment rate for male veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 was more than 29 percent, more than 10 percent higher than nonveterans in the same age group. Male veterans ages 25 to 34 also experienced a disparity in unemployment compared to their nonveteran counterparts (13 percent versus 9 percent).
In part, these high rates of unemployment exist because most veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have served for more than one deployment. They have been out of the job market for a while, or perhaps are looking for their first civilian job. By helping veterans get jobs, VA is also winning future patients, as well as providing an important safety net to ensure returning warriors get the care they deserve.
What You Can Do
Opportunities to help veterans are unlimited, but here are four pretty simple things you can do to help:
- Support community-based mental health services: One of the most common injuries associated with Iraq/Afghanistan service is traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress syndrome. The resulting effects of depression, anxiety and substance use from these conditions often lead a veteran to seek help from community mental health resources or involvement with the police and the criminal justice system. By supporting local charitable programs and interventions like Veteran Courts, you can ensure that your community is there to support veterans in need.
- Support a VSO: Veteran service organizations are membership organizations that provide social support for veterans and work to influence public policy. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is a relatively new VSO that is particularly concerned about issues affecting our newest veterans. Another relatively new and influential VSO is Student Veterans of America.
- Hire a veteran. Find out everything you need to know about hiring a veteran with the White House Business Council’s “Guide to Hiring Veterans.” Or encourage veterans you know to connect with VA employment resources.
- Keep our promises: Military service doesn’t pay that well. One of the promises we’ve made to our warriors is that we will pay back their sacrifices with benefits like health care, educational support and other services to help them adjust to civilian life. Let’s make sure we keep those promises, no matter how much we need to reduce government spending.
This post was originally published in the Altarum Health Policy Forum.