More than 21 million of our fellow citizens now carry the title of “veteran.” Since 2001, almost 3 million of those veterans have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and more than a million have deployed more than once.
Most of them will transition smoothly into civilian life. Yet too many veterans and military families face challenges finding meaningful employment, earning a college degree, securing housing, and receiving treatment for physical and mental health problems.
With the right support and policies, virtually all veterans and military families can continue to lead and serve in meaningful ways.
The beginning of a new administration presents an opportunity to take a fresh look at the strategies, policies, programs and resources that can empower veterans to successfully re-enter civilian life. These recommendations especially can help the Trump administration address their needs:
White House leadership
The administration can improve on important efforts by continuing as convener in chief and helping forge public-private partnerships that serve veterans and their families.
At the same time, our new president should create a senior staff position at the White House that concentrates on veteran and military family issues, and not relegate this issue solely to Cabinet agencies.
The appointee could drive strategy and policy while working across agencies on ensuring adequate resources and untangling bureaucratic challenges that veterans face when leaving military service.
This member of the White House staff should have the access, authority and responsibility to work across both the National Security Council and Domestic Policy Council. After all, veteran issues extend across almost the entire government.
National strategy and veteran outcomes
The first responsibility of this position should be to author a national veterans strategy.
The strategy could be a unified voice providing a common vision for veteran outcomes, services and resources, especially across federal agencies. The road map should particularly promote collaboration with private, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations that work with veterans.
The primary goal should be to drive services for veterans that lead to positive results. The strategy should also inculcate a culture of accountability and measurement not only for the government but also for nonprofits and funders that serve veterans.
Nonprofits that serve veterans are an important resource for veteran and military families. Philanthropies provide them with resources, but these nonprofits’ largest provider is the U.S. government.
To make better use of these investments, current Veterans Administration funding under the Support Services for Veteran Families program should be repurposed from solely focusing on homelessness to more broadly supporting community-based networks that empower MyVA Communities, those in which veterans and their advocates have a voice.
Grants should be awarded to the top candidates in every community. Through these organizations, the funds could then drive down the number of homeless veterans while providing services that keep them off the streets for life.
Among the other ways of helping veterans make a transition to civilian life: Washington should make sure that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is financially sustainable. Also, the VA and Pentagon need technology upgrades that allow their systems to better communicate with each other. Once that happens, they can make sure veterans don’t fall through the cracks when seeking services.
Physical, mental health needs
The invisible wounds of war, such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, have emerged as the signature wounds of this conflict. Our nation has an obligation to meet these needs.
Only 12 million of 21 million veterans, however, are eligible for VA health care. Of that number, only 6 million have sought care at the VA. More than 72 percent of veterans seek health care through the private sector.
To make the federal system work better for veterans, effective reform and restructuring of the VA is essential. This work would include reauthorizing the Veterans Choice Act so veterans continue to have options and access to high quality care, even if they cannot access a VA hospital or Vet Center.
Reforming the VA also would mean empowering senior leadership to hold employees accountable for incompetence or misconduct.
Equally important, the Trump administration should work toward full parity in benefits and compensation for physical and mental health concerns. The Mental Health Parity Act of 2008 attempts to prevent health insurers from providing less favorable benefits for mental health needs than for treatment for physical needs, such as surgery. The challenge is making sure that aim is fully implemented.
Similarly, full implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act would help veterans address their invisible wounds of war. Specifically, veterans would benefit from full funding of the legislation’s $1.5 billion BRAIN Initiative and $1.5 billion Precision Medicine Initiative. They also would gain from accelerated development and delivery of treatments and cures, along with reduced barriers to collaborative research.
Finally, better data collection and an identification of best practices in mental health care would improve the nation’s capacity to deliver that care. Philanthropies especially could help with evidence-based strategies by devoting funds to capture and analyze relevant data.
Family, caregiver support
The military has placed great emphasis on supporting military families during their time of service, and that same level of support is now required to help families as they separate from the military. They particularly need that support after an extended period of war.
The support should include making sure federal resources help spouses and caregivers as well as veterans. As an example, families and caregivers need their own supportive services as they care for veterans with physical and mental wounds, including their invisible wounds.
Spouses also need help with workforce development, employment and career opportunities. In each of these cases, nonprofit organizations can provide an important bridge. This challenge is not just one for the government.
To his credit, President Donald Trump has made veterans issues a key focus of his administration. He can help veterans by continuing to focus on such critical issues as access to health care, transition to civilian employment and careers, overcoming homelessness and preventing suicides.
A long-term, comprehensive focus through these five initiatives would maximize the full weight of the federal government as well as private, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.
In return, this will lead to effective services and positive outcomes for veterans and their families. Most important, it will improve their quality of life and enable them to lead our businesses, communities and country for decades to come.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Miguel Howe is director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative. These recommendations were recently published as part of “What’s Next: Policy Recommendations from the Bush Institute.”
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