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Veterans services must keep evolving

Posted: November 11, 2011 - 1:05am

The U.S. Senate took a step toward improving job opportunities and training for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s up to the House of Representatives now to back the tax credits and job training package that garnered a 95-0 Senate vote this week.

But this package is just a start. Many veterans of the Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea and World War II remain affected by their service to our nation. Lawmakers must strive to make this kind of unilateral vote for progress in improving veteran services the norm, not an exception that coincidentally falls near the Veterans Day observance.

We owe our freedoms to the people who serve and have served in our country’s military, and we owe our thanks to their families. It should not just be around Veterans Day that we note their service and sacrifice.

Veterans need more than thanks. Like the rest of Americans, recently-returning vets face a bad economy, and not all military skills translate into a waiting job. White House figures indicate that roughly 240,000 — 12 percent — of vets who have served since the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks are unemployed.

Due to higher-than-ever battle injury survival rates, some returnees have been severely wounded and face emotional issues as well. They join the veterans from previous conflicts who have grappled with the same sorts of issues, and found differing levels of support when they came home.

As for homelessness among vets, this is a well-documented problem. Statistics from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans are sobering. Males comprise 95 percent of homeless vets, but 56 percent of all homeless vets are African American or Hispanic. An estimated 1.5 million vets are considered at risk of homelessness and, according to the Veterans Administration, 107,000 vets are homeless on any given night.

The package heading for Congress gives tax incentives to firms that hire disabled vets of post 9/11 conflicts who have been jobless for six or more months and includes more job training and counseling programs for veterans.

Here in Alaska the state is doing its part. Our Department of Labor & Workforce Development gives “priority of service” to veterans and their spouses for the receipt of employment, training and placement services provided under a qualified job training program through the Alaska Job Center.

Still, here in Alaska, vets seeking VA care sometimes face challenges.

Ten years of bloody conflicts have changed our social landscape. Provision of promised long-term health care takes on increasing significance with more critically-injured vets than ever recovering from and living with the aftermath of severe burns, missing limbs and traumatic head injuries.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a leader in trying to make sure veterans who otherwise would have to travel from Alaska to an out-of-state VA Hospital find care within their communities, or at least within this state. Accessibility of care within the communities that give veterans their support networks is key, whether a vet served recently or at the Chosin Reservoir.

This Veterans Day is as good a day as any for those who make policies regarding veterans affairs to focus on not repeating past mistakes, on improving access to medical services — particularly in rural areas — and on giving vets who are leaving the service and are able to work help rejoining a tough job market.

Our vets deserve a Senate and House that can unite across partisan lines to keep up an evolution of existing veteran’s services, a system to serve vets who are or become at risk and help keep them healthy and able to house themselves — even if they are dealing with serious physical and/or emotional issues that came about long before Sept. 11, 2001.

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