As thousands of troops are set to return from Afghanistan over the next two years, veterans on the homefront say they want to see increased reintegration support this year.
The latest jobs report — and the first of the new year — shows a dismal picture for the nation's newest veterans. Unemployment among those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 10.8 percent — far higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent.
It's a number that has veterans and their advocates concerned.
Advocates say job training exemplified in the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 is just one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is the sluggish speed of help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans say the focus must remain on their physical and mental health, in addition to job training.
Anthony Pike, a Marine Corps veteran who works for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) says part of the problem is translating military skills to the civilian workforce.
"Why can't the guy who's driving trucks in Iraq come home and drive a truck at home?" Pike says. "Why can't the medic who's patching people up in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can't he drive an ambulance and be an EMT? Those are certifications that are easy fixes."
Mental Health Concerns, Too
In addition to jobs and training, another area of concern is the mental health challenge facing service men and women, particularly the high rate of suicides. The latest figures from the Pentagon show 349 suicides among active-duty members of the military in 2012. According to the Department of Defense, the Army — which sustained the heaviest toll — lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat in Afghanistan last year.
IAVA founder Paul Reickhoff says it'll take a strong national effort to begin to address the root causes of suicide.
"Suicide itself is not the only problem," he says. "It's a culminating event that often results from the failure to address a spectrum of transitional challenges. So, it's mental health, it's financial, it's family, it's sometimes the VA. Folks shouldn't have to wait months to see a doctor or to navigate bureaucracy to get care."
A Growing Backlog
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are still experiencing excessive delays in getting their claims processed. Army veteran Michael Faulkner says it's a major stumbling block.
"The No. 1 problem right now is the fatal funnel that is created at VA with the backlog of claims, in all areas, in GI bill, especially in medical," Faulkner says. "Everywhere that there's a delay, we're hurting a veteran."
The VA acknowledges the problem and is asking veterans to be patient. It's implementing new processes and technologies aimed at eliminating the backlog by 2015 — a year after the last U.S. combat troops are expected to return from Afghanistan.