At a conference in Colorado earlier this week on defense and foreign-policy issues — a conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the El Pomar Foundation — there was plenty of food for thought on a host of topics. But as we move into Thanksgiving, I’ll focus here on how we should give thanks — and more than thanks, give the right sort of assistance — to those, less than 1 percent of the population, who wear this nation’s colors while bearing arms to protect us.
One of the most galvanizing speakers at the conference was Col. David W. Sutherland (Ret.), former special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now a full-time advocate for service personnel and veterans.
“We’re not victims,” he said. “We’re veterans. We don’t need pity; we need opportunity.” Veterans, he said, need “recognition and ‘connection’.” They need education, employment, and access to health care. The approximately 50 percent of veterans who emerge unscathed from their service make better workers, have more education already, earn more money, and overall just make better citizens. But some 50 percent of veterans suffer from wounds physical or mental; they too can, and usually do, make more productive workers and citizens, but they need outreach from the community to help get them re-engaged with civilian life.
An average of 350,000 active-duty service members transition out of the military every year — but next year, some 1 million will do so. The Veterans Administration does a good job providing services to vets once the vets are in the VA system — but, alas, the average time for processing initial claims is an astonishing three years. Those just happen to be the three most important years during which a veteran either does or doesn’t re-engage productively. Obviously, in addition to improving the VA’s screening process to make it more helpful, more efficient, and in some cases less outright antagonistic, the VA should also do a much better job at helping veterans connect with the tens of thousands of non-profits and other agencies that provide all sorts of assistance, opportunities, etcetera.
Meanwhile, the rest of us can reach out to veterans by helping them navigate their return to civilian life. Business owners and human resources professionals, in particular, should recognize that the training veterans receive and the character they build mean they often have far higher “upsides” as employees than the ordinary job applicant might offer — even if, on the front end, for those 50 percent who are somehow wounded by their experiences, it might take a little extra effort to integrate them into private-sector systems.
All of this is by way of poor summary of the gist of the powerful message, based on a galvanizing presentation, from Col. Sutherland. I’m actually not doing justice to the tenor of his message, which was far more upbeat than I can capture — far more focused on how veterans make superb assets to almost any organization or community.
So let’s be thankful for their service — and let’s show our gratitude by reaching out in every way we can to bring those veterans back more fully into our workplaces, our communities, our lives.