America's servicemen and women have sacrificed terribly in the past decade. As of last week, 5,783 had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 41,030 had been wounded. Hundreds of thousands have been deployed — often numerous times — far away from their homes, loved ones, careers and communities. This loss will cut across America's social fabric for generations, and the nation should mark today's Veterans Day by committing to give military families the support they deserve.
Nine years in Afghanistan and more than seven in Iraq have exacted a heavy toll on America's military. The nation was too slow in providing front-line forces the armor and other support they needed, but the government did respond to the public fallout by vastly increasing its ability to deal with extreme trauma, head injury, debilitating stress and other casualties of these modern guerrilla wars.
But the government still has nowhere near the capacity to provide returning veterans with the mental health care, physical rehabilitation, job training and other services that so many of these 20-, 30- and 40-somethings need to make the transition back into civilian society and to lead productive lives. Military base towns are reporting upsurges in crime and domestic violence. The Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to modernize its ability to serve female veterans, a fast-growing subgroup, who have unique health care, privacy and safety needs. And the VA cannot accommodate the demand for drug and alcohol treatment, even though nearly one in 10 veterans under the VA's care last year was diagnosed as a substance abuser.
The nation needs to come to grips with the economic and social costs of these wars, and to ensure that veterans and their families get the support they have earned. Two economists told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee this fall that medical and disability costs alone from Iraq and Afghanistan could total nearly $1 trillion — and that does not include the costs of other direct benefits to veterans, such as for housing guarantees or job training. Nor does it include the larger costs to the economy of the lost productive capacity of these younger workers.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated last month that the costs of providing health care to veterans could jump anywhere between 45 to 75 percent over the next 10 years. Congress needs to ensure that the VA has the resources its needs. The government has made progress in dealing more holistically with both physical and mental health issues, but some conditions, such as posttraumatic stress, may give rise to larger problems over time. The VA needs to be prepared. And the nation needs to not forget it has a lasting responsibility to the men and women in uniform.