After the Uniform—Serving the Veterans Who Served Us

On May 8, 2012, Volunteers of America held an engaging discussion with some of nation’s top leaders working to find solutions to the problems facing America’s returning veterans. Moderated by David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the discussion included General Barry McCaffrey; Dr. Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans; Barbara Banaszynski, Volunteers of America senior vice president of program operations; and Lee Woodruff, co-founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Woodruff is also a best-selling author who co-wrote “In an Instant,” which chronicled the injury and recovery of her husband, ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

Gregory opened the discussion by noting that he could not recall a time at which the public held the military in higher esteem. “However, it’s one thing to support our service people during a time of war, it’s another to welcome them home and help them integrate into the community.” Banaszynski agreed, and added that the community must be more open to helping veterans. “It’s not just what we say, but also what we do” to support our returning veterans. She explained that there are ways that public and private institutions could support military families and help them acclimate more quickly to new communities.

McCaffrey pointed out that we are engaged in the longest war in our country’s history, and our military forces are serving as many as five or more tours of duty. With our volunteer armed forces, a smaller percentage of the population serves for longer periods of time. When they return to civilian life, supports must be in place to aid in reintegration and to provide a safety net. “We’re not doing them a favor,” said McCaffrey. “We owe it to them.”

Moseley Brown said that it’s critical to speed up delivery of benefits to veterans. She noted that Veterans Affairs offers eBenefits, a web portal that provides a central location for veterans, service members, and their families to research, find, access and manage their benefits and personal information.

Some returning veterans face challenging medical problems. In today’s conflicts, more than 20 percent of wounds involve brain injuries (as opposed to just over 10 percent during the Vietnam War). The rise is due in part to the type of weapons causing the injuries (land mines and improvised explosive devices) and advances in medical treatment. Woodruff said that if Bob Woodruff’s injury had occurred during the Vietnam War, he would not have survived.

In addition, more of today’s veterans grapple with “invisible injuries,” including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other issues. Traditionally, military service members have been less likely to die by suicide than civilians. But a 2010 study found that Army and Marine suicide rates are now more than double that of the general population. “People just don’t understand that mental illness is just as real as physical illness,” said Woodruff. “We need to remove the stigma.”

The May 8 discussion was just the start of a three-year conversation about the challenges facing our veterans and finding the solutions to address those challenges. The next discussion will be held on June 18, 2013, at the National Press Club.