Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on your re-election. As you now begin your second term, there are myriad important issues plaguing the veteran community that we wish to bring to the forefront.
There are nearly 23 million veterans living in the United States, making up 8.1 percent of the population. We’re a minority, yes – but a sizable one.
What’s more, we’re a minority that continually sacrifices for our country’s defense. Far too many of us are suffering needlessly. In 2011, a friend and fellow Marine, Steve of Ohio, tried to commit suicide.
From 2005 until 2006, Matthew, a fellow retired Marine and friend of mine, lived out of the back seat of his car in parking lots across Pennsylvania. He also debated suicide.
My friend David, a former staff sergeant, was recently retired from the corps due to health complications resulting from environmental exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another friend, a former Marine sergeant, Timothy, who has a wife and two sons, was forced to move in with his mother-in-law in Missouri to avoid homelessness.
He cannot find work and therefore cannot support his family. A retired soldier and friend, Coban, suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq and requires 24-hour supervision from his wife, who is now unable to work.
The list goes on and on. Veterans commit suicide at a rate of one every 80 minutes, according to some estimates.
Combined with active-duty suicides that means that each and every day in the United States, an estimated 19 men or women who are wearing or have worn a uniform commit suicide.
We must address this in full force. Too many of my brethren have returned from war only to take their own lives.
In August, you signed an executive order to expand mental health treatment and ensure that suicidal veterans are seen by the Department of Veterans Affairs within 24 hours.
Your efforts are commendable, but more must be done. With the military downsizing, more service members will enter the veteran community, bringing with them their service-connected issues.
Traumatic brain injury is the signature wound of our most recent wars. T.B.I., according to the Brain Injury Association of America, has left 360,000 troops wounded since 2001.
As the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan continues, that number will rise. And as veterans relocate to small-town America, medical facilities spanning our country must be trained to deal with their wounds.
Recently, the death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan reached over 5,000. The number of amputees is over 1,500 and our wounded over 50,000.
For more than two decades, troops have served in places like Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Environmental Protection Agency released a study stating that the dust found in these countries contains toxins, bacteria and metals that can lead to health problems.
In an analysis of troop morbidity, USA Today found that there has been a 251 percent increase in neurological disorders and a 47 percent increase in respiratory disorders per 10,000 troops.
Environmental exposures, from Agent Orange to dust and burn pits, have affected troops through different wars over many decades.
We must develop programs for diagnosing and treating those ailments. With all the service-connected medical issues veterans face, the government must also ensure access to care.
Based on various projections by medical experts, I estimate that nearly two million veterans suffer from PTSD. We must ensure that they are treated.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has 20,000 mental health workers. Last year, the secretary of veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, announced that the department would hire 1,600 additional mental health professionals and 300 additional support staff members.
Veterans report mental health treatment wait times upward of 30 days. The department’s mental health staff should be multiplied until a more acceptable wait time is reached and maintained.
It’s not just health issues that are a concern. As the military continues to downsize, unemployment and homelessness may rise.
Two years ago, veteran unemployment stagnated at nearly 10 percent. By October 2012, the rate was lower at just below 7 percent.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have a more dire outlook regarding employment. Their unemployment rate for 2012 was about 10 percent, while the unemployment rate of their civilian peers was closer to 8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In November 2011, you signed into law the “Vow to Hire Heroes” act offering tax incentives to those who hire veterans.
The first lady, Michelle Obama, has also been instrumental in aiding 125,000 veterans become employed and we commend her actions to ensure that 250,000 more will be hired soon.
By hiring more veterans, we may possibly quell homelessness. In 2008, an estimated 154,000 veterans were homelessness.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that over 60,000 veterans are still homeless today. That’s an improvement, but still 60,000 too many.
If left untreated, these problems will only get worse with time. In solving these problems, we can make this a new greatest generation.
The opportunity to do so is now, and you, President Obama, can lead us there.
Thomas James Brennan is a reporter for The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C. Before being medically retired this fall, he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, and is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Follow him on Twitter at @thomasjbrennan.