The travails of troops over the past decade have been well-chronicled. Deployed to regions where unconventional warfare is conducted. Victims of “stop-loss” orders to extend tours of duty. A steady rise in the suicide rate. Increased need for mental health counseling.
To this litany, we can now add high unemployment. Former combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq are experiencing increasing difficulty getting hired once they get back home. Part of that is due to the overall cratering of the economy, but the jobless rate for veterans in March was 14.7 percent, which is much higher than the national average of 9.7 percent. Nearly one in three veterans under the age of 24 is unemployed. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has leveled off for the rest of Americans.
Some political leaders want to help. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wants to expand the GI bill to cover more vocational and technical training. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has announced legislation that would do that.
The idea is sound, because for many people job training is more suitable than a four-year college degree. But the Veterans Affairs Department is sounding a cautionary note, because of its recent troubles with GI bill changes that triggered an onslaught of college applications.
Last August, Congress expanded college payments for veterans, but it took the VA an average of 35 days to process a claim. The backlog grew so large that the government began cutting emergency checks of $3,000 to students awaiting payment.
The VA says the process has been streamlined and that spring tuition payments have been smoother, but it warns that it will take time to accommodate trade and vocational applications. Currently, the system is geared toward covering traditional college tuition, not one-time job training courses.
Beyond training, the government needs to do a better job of conveying why veterans would be productive employees. Many have valuable skills and a disciplined work ethic forged in challenging circumstances.
One of the conundrums in publicizing and delivering mental health assistance to veterans is that prospective employers might have gotten the idea that all veterans are suffering. That is a myth that the VA and government leaders need to directly address.
Arguably, the only people who have sacrificed since the nation embarked on two wars are the troops and their families. We owe them a fair pathway to a productive life as thanks for their service.