The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and still remain major challenges for United States military troops. But the war back home against a staggering economy is still a formidable opponent in itself.
Veterans of those wars continued to acknowledge that battle at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) annual gala in New York City this past week, as unemployment for U.S. veterans remained above 10 percent.
“‘Victory’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to be debated for decades, but ‘victory’ is ultimately going to be measured in how we treat this generation,” said Tom Tarantino, a policy and research coordinator with IAVA who served as an Army captain for a decade and spent one year in Iraq. “Do we set them up for success so that they will transition home out of the military, get jobs, got to school, and become that next generation?”
Tarantino highlighted the Senate’s passage of the Veterans Hiring Bill Thursday for returning troops being one of the few bipartisan agreements Democrats and Republicans still have nowadays. The passage of the 2009 post 9-11 G.I. Bill also was an important display of Capital Hill’s unwavering, undisputed support for veterans in his mind. But even Tarantino’s optimism wouldn’t guarantee that always will be the case.
“Usually members of Congress vote to support vets rather than to support their own political agenda, so we’ve been very lucky in that regard,” he said. “However, I think the challenge going forward is ensuring as the spotlight moves off this conflict, the attention span of people in Congress remains focus on what we need to do.”
“We’ve been neglecting these systems for 20-30 years. It’s not going to be quick four years with a couple of really big sexy bills passed. It’s going to be a long time systemic change. It’s going to need the work and attention of everyone in Congress. My biggest fear is that, 2 years from now, we won’t have it.”
Those future bills and solutions still won’t erase the difficult journey it has been for many veterans to find employment when they come back home.
“When I came back in 2005, I thought I had quite a bit of experience, but I couldn’t get past the phone interviews,” said Tieran Tullock, a Marine network engineer who served two tours of duty in Iraq. “For about 6-7 months, I kept on looking where I thought my qualifications would fit in with a company . In January 2006, I interviewed with a bus company for an entry level position. The senior manager at my department kept on looking at my resume and said, ‘You seem pretty experienced but this is an entry level position.’ But being as I was looking for so long, I’d said ‘I’ll take it.'”
Tullock added that there were particular challenges for reservists when they return, both because of their continued status in the military and the need to transition back to civilian life so quickly.
“As a reserve the environment is a little bit different because as we’re surveillants most of the time,” he said. “There really isn’t that much time for transition. One of the challenges I felt affected me was the fact that I still was a reserve. At that time in 2005, I still had three more years left before I separated. With the war still ongoing, the flare ups still happening, employees were skeptical taking us up because they’re legally obligated to hold that position while we’re employed and they’re missing that full time staffer.”
Besides unemployment, the fight for troops to even get their own benefits is proving to be an encumbrance as well.
“I’m still waiting,” said Donna Bachler, a former Army mailing operations director who enlisted in 1999 and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving in 2007. “I get letters once a month from the VA saying, ‘We’re still waiting on your claim.’ And I’m like, ‘Stop writing me letters and work on my claim.’ There’s a huge backlog where I’m definitely not unique in waiting, but it’s definitely frustrating. You try and call, you wait an hour on hold to say, ‘Where’s my claim?’ And they’ll say, ‘I don’t know or we’ll work on it.’ There’s no accountability.”
It’s just another financial headache added to the ones where groups like the IAVA hope in the coming years will be solved rather than forgotten about. The ramifications of not fixing these issues are likely to be very detrimental, especially in the mind of Tullock.
“If we don’t address these issues now, we’ll be in very big trouble as a country.”