It is worth stating at the outset what should be obvious: no government can ever do too much for the brave men and women who served their country as members of our military, whether that service was in peacetime or during times of conflict. Our veterans were all willing to lay down their lives in the name of freedom and defending the American way of life, and many suffered serious injury, hardship or mental scarring in doing so. All sacrificed the best years of their lives to serving on our behalf, and we should not forget that.
The second point is that if our government is not fully meeting its obligations to veterans, then it is not for want of trying. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has a larger budget than the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the US Intelligence community all put together. But sometimes just throwing money at a problem is not enough, and the VA Department is too often hamstrung by an ancient and complex bureaucracy that has failed to keep pace with the times.
The social contract between the government and its military veterans goes right back to the founding fathers. The aftermath of the Civil War saw the first real attempt to get to grips with the problems facing veterans, and the obligations of the nation towards them. After every major conflict since, Veterans’ organizations put pressure on the government of the day to do more for those left disabled, dispossessed and out of work by war.
Our current system has its roots in the GI Bill introduced by President Roosevelt following World War II. This recognized and rewarded military service with one year’s unemployment compensation, a preferential home loan program, a veterans’ employment program, a small business loan program and subsidies for higher education. Many new VA hospitals were also built, as thousands of returning soldiers used the GI Bill to put themselves through college and begin a new life.
The GI Bill was a great success. It was estimated that for every dollar spent on subsidizing educational opportunities, $7 came back to the nation through increased economic output or taxes down the line. The veterans’ home loan program also stimulated the wider post-war economy by creating a boom in house building.
Meeting modern needs
Even so, successive governments found they were struggling to meet their obligations. The Cold War and the protracted Vietnam conflict saw the number of veterans grow considerably, while the make-up of the military became more diverse, with women and ethnic minorities increasingly represented. Those groups had different needs and backgrounds to the ex-soldiers of the previous generation, but these were seldom recognized.
2017 saw the introduction of the “Forever GI Bill”, but many feel that government provision for veterans still hasn’t been sufficiently adapted to meet the modern age. Our veterans should surely be treated better than the non-serving population, and certainly not worse, yet the figures paint a bleak picture. Today, veterans are more likely to be unemployed, in jail, or homeless. More vets are affected by alcohol or substance abuse, and are more likely to commit suicide.
Fixing the system
By far the most accessed service provided for veterans is healthcare. The provision is often excellent, but for various reasons, many veterans struggle to access it. The piecemeal way the VA system was constructed also means that there are unintentional loopholes or blind spots where veterans can lose out on benefits. It takes individual politicians, most notably those who have served their country, to take notice of veterans’ plight and attempt to fix the system.
Tennessee Senator Mark Green, a former flight surgeon with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, who served as emergency medicine physician in Operation Red Dawn, which led to the capture of Saddam Hussein, is one such man. Dr. Green sponsored Senate Bill 10, exempting disabled veterans from having to pay sales tax or a registration fee on modified vehicles gifted to them by the VA Department. He also sponsored Senate Bill 1675 preserving the property tax relief given to veterans that they previously lost if they temporarily went into hospital or a nursing home.
That such measures should be necessary at all is indicative of the failing bureaucracy of an overly complex and fragmented system. Senator John McCain called for more private contractors to be involved in veterans’ healthcare, and in 2014 10% of appointments were contracted out. This rose to 32% in 2016 and looks to rise still further in the future.
It’s hoped that a hybrid private-public model will help the veterans’ health system run more efficiently, and perhaps this could also apply to veterans starting their own business. Private sector involvement could mean that preferential treatment for federal contracts, tax relief and competitive financing is backed up by support and connections from actual businesses.
The government needs to rethink the social contract with veterans, rewarding service not just compensating them for it. It also needs to meet the more diverse needs of today’s ex-servicemen and women. In that way, more young people will see serving their country as an attractive option, and our nation can finally be proud of how it treats those citizens who gave it their greatest gift.