On Friday, we honor our nation’s veterans, a practice that goes back more than a hundred years to the end of the first world war. Politicians from Baltimore to Honolulu will make will make rousing speeches, as generations of politicians have done before them. As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m grateful that they value our service, but I think we can do better than empty rhetoric.
When the U.S. government ended the draft in 1973 and adopted the all-volunteer force military model, it effectively segregated the armed forces from the rest of the country. Today, veterans account for only 7% of the U.S. adult population, meaning most Americans probably don’t know anyone with military experience. This can result in misconceptions about service life, such as Tom Brady’s recent offhand comment comparing a football season to a combat deployment. War is now something that happens to other people.
There are roughly 19 million veterans alive today, and while hardly any have played in the NFL, 78% have served in combat, from World War II to Iraq. Combat affects everyone who encounters it, some more than others. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a nonprofit, states that 65% of its members reported service-connected PTSD, and over half reported anxiety (58%) or depression (56%).
Deployments don’t just affect the service member; their families are intimately involved in their absence and homecoming, and many of these reunions don’t have a happy ending. Research from Brigham Young University found that male combat veterans’ marriages were 62% more likely to end in divorce or separation than other men’s. A combination of these factors and a failure to successfully reintegrate into civilian life can often lead to homelessness: 24% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were homeless for over a year after they left the military, and 81% reported couch surfing temporarily, according to a survey by IAVA. Finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs has found that veterans kill themselves at a rate 1.5 times greater than their civilian peers, an average of nearly 17 veterans every day. Tragically, the youngest cohort, post-9/11 veterans aged 18 to 34, take their lives at a higher rate than any other group of veterans.
Most Americans value veterans’ service and want to support them: 72% of U.S. adults from both political parties told the Pew Research Center that “they would increase spending for veterans’ benefits and services.” Our elected leaders, however, while quick with a sound bite or a photo op pledging their support for the troops, are often hesitant to follow through on their public statements. Take, for example, the Honoring our PACT Act of 2022, a piece of legislation designed to improve health care access and funding for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances while deployed. Its passage stalled in Congress for five days earlier this year when 25 Republican senators, each one of them no doubt wearing a U.S. flag lapel pin, withdrew their support. They changed their minds only after coming under pressure from veterans’ groups and the attendant glare of the media. Is this how the Senate thanks us for our service?
In 2017, Congress passed the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act to create a national memorial in Washington, D.C., but it has still not been funded, and a site on the National Mall has not been dedicated. Similarly, the Building Solutions for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness Act of 2021 aims to strengthen programs that help veterans find permanent solutions to housing instability and homelessness, but it has not been passed into law either. Clearly, when it comes to honoring our veterans, there’s a lot of talk but not much action.
If you really want to thank a veteran for their service today, call your Congress member. Tell them that it’s time the nearly 7,000 service members who have died and the 2 million who have served since 9/11 have a national memorial where they can gather, remember their time downrange and honor their friends who didn’t come home. Tell them it is a disgrace that American veterans will sleep rough tonight while legislation to help them languishes in Congress. Tell them the time for talk is over and our veterans need actions, not words, on this day created to honor their sacrifice.
Mark Stoneman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired U.S. Army major who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2010 and in Afghanistan in 2012.