The issues impacting veterans are significant. Many have health problems directly related to their military service. These range from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and from complications related to amputation to living with a traumatic brain injury.
Twenty percent of veterans who served since 9/11 are estimated to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among Vietnam veterans, 30 percent are estimated to have had PTSD at some point in their lives. Twenty veterans take their lives every day, most of whom never seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
And despite numerous high-profile efforts promoting employment of veterans, many still find it difficult to secure meaningful employment upon leaving the military.
As Trump builds his veterans agenda, here are five steps he can take in the first year of his administration that can change the lives of countless veterans and their families.
First, work with Congress to strengthen and reform the VA healthcare system, where the greatest challenge facing veterans today is access to timely care. More than two years after the waiting list scandal broke, far too many veterans still cannot get a medical appointment when they need it.
Congress passed the Veterans Choice, Access, and Accountability Act of 2014 to create a short-term solution that would allow more veterans to get care in the community. But the program has no’t worked as hoped and it is set to expire next year.
The time is right for strong presidential leadership to transform the VA health care system. The major Veterans Service Organizations, the VA, bipartisan leaders in Congress and, most recently, the independent Commission on Care, have agreed on the best path forward: Create local, high-performing health care networks, led by the VA, that combine the best of the agency with the best of community care.
This will ensure veterans can access quality care, designed to meet the unique needs of veterans, and get an appointment when and where they need one.
Second, ensure that all veterans have access to timely and effective mental health services, especially for war veterans or veterans who have experienced trauma. Increase funding for VA mental health programs at hospitals, clinics and Vet Centers, for peer-to-peer programs, and for new, evidence-based treatments for PTSD and suicide-prevention efforts.
Third, Trump must use his influence and the power of the White House to educate employers about the value of hiring veterans, particularly those with disabilities. A recent survey by the Disabled American Veterans organization, Monster.com and Military.com reveals that 30 percent of employers worry about hiring veterans with PTSD.
Fourth, ensure that women veterans have equitable access to all of the benefits they have earned through their service. There are more women than ever serving in the military in all occupational specialties, as well as in combat.
Like their male counterparts, too many women who leave the military face the prospect of unemployment or homelessness and often wind up dealing with mental health issues or even contemplating suicide.
The President-elect must work with Congress to introduce and pass a comprehensive women veterans’ bill to ensure gender-specific medical care is available at all VA facilities. The legislation must ensure all benefits, programs and services are designed to be equally effective for women veterans.
Finally, Trump must work to ensure that caregivers of veterans from all generations receive benefits. For countless veterans, family caregivers are the unsung heroes that help them recover and become productive citizens.
It is shameful that while caregivers for veterans who served after 9/11 receive benefits, caregivers of veterans who served in earlier eras, such as World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, do not receive these same benefits. The President-elect can fix this in his first budget.
America has promised to stand by the men and women who wore the uniform, who sacrificed for our freedom. Trump must implement a strong veterans agenda and ensure we keep this promise.
Garry Augustine is a Vietnam-era, combat-wounded Army veteran and Executive Director of the Washington headquarters of Disabled American Veterans, an organization that provides a lifetime of support for veterans of all generations and their families, helping more than one million veterans in life-changing ways each year.