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Mercury News editorial: Help Iraq veterans succeed when they get home

Mercury News Editorial

Posted: 12/18/2011 08:00:00 PM PST The final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is a welcome way to conclude 2011. Young Americans will be coming home, and taxpayers will no longer be spending more than $150 million per day on a war begun under false pretenses and pursued under false hopes of bestowing happily-ever-after democracy.

But some of the billions Americans are saving needs to go toward helping veterans. It’s arguable that we failed the Iraqi people, but we must not fail our own. Men and women who fought for us deserve a bright future at home.

The president and Congress are responsible for this, and it is by no means guaranteed. Veterans’ benefits are guaranteed through next year, but lawmakers this fall toyed with reneging on the promise of longer-term help. Yes, the national debt is a problem, but balancing the budget on the backs of veterans would be unconscionable.

Even now the unemployment rate for veterans younger than 24 is almost 40 percent. The soldiers who will be coming home face a challenging job market. They should at least be able to rely on benefits they were promised when they agreed to risk their lives for their nation.

More than 2 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Upon their return, the first order of business should be helping them find jobs with health insurance and other benefits. But those who can’t must not be abandoned.

Many will need treatment for depression or post-traumatic stress. It’s far better– and far cheaper — to spend money on helping veterans become productive members of society than it is to allow them to slide into poverty and homelessness. When that happens, health care and other services will cost far more in public dollars and human misery.

Misery is indeed a legacy of going to war: Nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day. More U.S. soldiers have committed suicide in the past decade than those who died in combat in Iraq.

The treatment of mentally ill vets is so bad that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco last spring ruled it unconstitutional. Judges lambasted the system, saying, for example: “Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are forced to wait weeks for referrals and are given no opportunity to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care.”

The VA has hired more than 3,000 mental health professionals to deal with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but more are needed.

If ever there was a nonpartisan issue, this should be it. President Barack Obama made campaign promises to work to reduce the suicide rate of veterans and to speed up access to treatment for postwar problems. He must follow through, and Congress must help to find the money. All Americans of all political persuasions should be demanding this in chorus. What could be more important?

The United States’ volunteer army draws heavily on young people of low to middle income who want to serve their country and believe it will benefit them in the long run. So it should. The least we can do is guarantee that their wounds, physical and mental, will be treated and that America’s concern for their well-being does not end the moment they turn in their weapons.

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