As we observe Veterans Day, the nation pauses to reflect upon the sacrifices of millions of veterans and their families. Honoring these sacrifices should be front and center on our policy agenda—and not limited to one day a year. Our political leaders need to spell out, even at a time of renewed fiscal teeth-gnashing, just how they intend to ensure veterans and their families have access to high-quality health care, gainful employment and sufficient educational opportunities.
More than 2.5 million service members have been deployed to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, including about 100,000 from New York State. These are young men and women who have worked to protect America. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice; thousands of others continue to bear the wounds of war. As they come home, their needs for support are complex and dynamic. Effectively meeting these needs calls for integrated, comprehensive solutions delivered by a combination of government agencies, as well as the nonprofit and private sectors.
The costs of not meeting the needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are profound and will be felt in communities across the country. They come in the form of unemployment, poor health, substance abuse and homelessness. Insufficient support for returning service members and veterans could jeopardize the future of the all-volunteer force that protects and defends the country and its people. Future generations of potential military recruits may be wary of enlisting if they view the nation's support for veterans as weak.
Over the past 10 years, through legislative efforts such as the post-9/11 GI Bill and the Wounded Warrior Care Act, the federal government has invested billions to expand employment opportunities, improve mental health care, and ensure that veterans have the education they need to embark on new careers after their military service ends. At the same time, there has been a proliferation of advocacy organizations and community-based programs organized to support these initiatives.
While these efforts have been important, hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families continue to struggle. There is much more to be done. These and other opportunities must reach a greater number of returning service members and veterans.
Successfully implementing such a response will require committed leadership, strategic coordination and accountability. It will require a multidimensional and sustained response—one that includes but does not end with government. This call to action extends well beyond the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Meaningful and effective private-sector initiatives are also needed that can cross the civilian-military divide. From all sectors, supporting veterans and their families will require more than public relations efforts and promises that fade after Veterans Day. Programs that offer comprehensive, community-based, one-stop access to services and benefits, such as the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, are sorely needed.
Veterans and their families are part of our communities, and the care and opportunities they need will require drawing on the strengths and capabilities of every sector of government and our private sector. The Joining Forces Initiative and President Barack Obama's recent executive order calling for public-private partnerships designed to expand access to mental health care for veterans, service members and their families have stimulated movement in these directions. But moving forward will require cross-sector cooperation and continued national policy leadership.
There is much more to be done in the months and years ahead as we bring America's troops home and work to rebuild the economy. The consequences for America's communities and national security are too great to avoid an in-depth discussion of these needs or prolong their comprehensive resolution simply because of political or fiscal finger-pointing.
Terri Tanielian is a senior social research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Newsday on November 9, 2012. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.