As we watched the parades and listened to the speeches on Veterans’ Day, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offered perhaps the most consequential insight about America’s continuing bond with those who have gone in harm’s way to serve our country.
“The United States is now winding down the longest period of sustained combat in our history,” Secretary Hagel observed, “but America’s obligations to those who answered the call to serve are just beginning.”
These national obligations will not be easy to fulfill. More than 23 million Americans have honorably served, and of that number, 443,000 call Maryland home.
More than 133,000 of those Maryland veterans are Black – and more will be coming home from Afghanistan in the weeks and months to come.
On their return, we will thank them for their service and applaud them for the hardships that they have endured for the sake of our country, knowing full well that our words alone, however heartfelt, can never be enough.
As a nation, as communities and as individuals, we have a shared duty to act upon that knowledge.
It is only right that we hold parades in our veterans’ honor. Yet, it is after the parade is over that the true test of our national character begins.
From the Roman armies of Caesar to the incredible American fighting forces of today, the integration of any nation’s veterans back into civilian society has always been a difficult and complex process.
Nevertheless, our experience to date confirms that there are at least four key areas where we must succeed.
First and foremost, for those of our nation’s veterans who have been injured, whether physically or psychologically, we must “bind up their wounds.”
As of last December, more than 900,000 service men and women had been treated at our Veterans hospitals and clinics since returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps 10,000 new patients are being added to that staggering number every month.
The continuing cost of these wars has also resulted in more than a million veterans’ disability claims being filed with the VA during each of the last three years. Twice the number of claims in the pre-9/11 era, that onslaught has contributed to significant delays in providing the support that these veterans and their families need.
The VA has made significant progress in reducing this backlog, cutting the number of delayed claims by about one-third since March. Now, the Congress must provide the funding and oversight to bring the VA disability system into compliance and transform it for the 21st Century.
Second, we must continue to assist our veterans in furthering their education.
Providing them with the ability to attend the college or university of their choice is not only our duty. It is an opportunity to strengthen our economy for decades to come.
Here, we are making real progress. Back in 2008, I cosponsored the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the New GI Bill; and, recently, I was deeply gratified when the VA announced the millionth recipient of Post -9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Third, the number of veterans who are homeless continues to be a national disgrace.
Again, our nation is moving forward, in part by supporting public-private partnerships that build affordable housing that also provide social supports. As a result, national estimates of the number of veterans who are homeless declined from 76,000 homeless veterans in 2009 to 63,000 last year.
However, if we are to continue to heal these human tragedies, we must help those veterans who are struggling to hold onto the homes that they are buying. I am hopefully optimistic that the Veterans Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, including provisions I sponsored, will significantly expand home foreclosure protections for service members, their families, and disabled veterans.
Finally, we must redouble our efforts to help all of our returning veterans obtain good jobs, paying particular attention to those who are young and less experienced.
Veterans bring intelligence, leadership ability, a strong work ethic, skills and a sense of loyalty to the job market. Yet, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that young veterans, ages 18-24, are experiencing an unemployment rate far in excess of their non-veteran peers.
Some have suggested that a reason for this disparity is that employers fear that these veterans are “damaged,” a stereotype that is especially harmful to the many young veterans who are Black.
Consider the insight of U.S. Army veteran and rap artist “Sergeant Leo Dunson,” who observed on Ms. Michel Martin’s PBS Show, “Tell Me More,” that:
“When I have the uniform on, people look at me as a great guy, a good black guy…. But as soon as I take the uniform off, I’m just another black guy, a thug or a gangster.”
If our veterans are to succeed in rejoining our society “after the parade is over,” we must see past their uniforms and into the hearts of countrymen and women who have come home.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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