This entry was co-authored by Jacqueline Martinez, Senior Program Director at the New York State Health Foundation.
Whatever shape our reactions to President Obama's May 1st announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden took, most contained a shared sense of relief. Nearly 10 years ago, New Yorkers and all Americans united in mourning the loss of thousands of lives during the attacks of September 11th. A few weeks later our country engaged in a war to find, dismantle, and destroy the terrorist groups responsible for the atrocities of that dreadful day. More than two million troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, and a total of 5,885 of our servicemembers have been killed in the battlefield.
Now, as the nation's leaders continue to debate how much longer soldiers will need to stay in Afghanistan, there is one indisputable topic: we must all ensure that our military servicemembers return home to communities and families capable of supporting their needs and serving them in return.
Ensuring the health and well-being of military families -- not only their physical health, but also their mental health, their ability to thrive in their communities, their opportunities to reintegrate into their lives back home -- will take a shared effort across multiple sectors. Preparing communities and families to welcome, embrace, and support the brave men and women who defend this country will require that not only the VA but also community-based organizations, educational institutions, health care providers, social service organizations, community health centers, private foundations, and businesses large and small invest their time, energy, and resources to meet the needs of our military families.
The men and women who have put their lives in harm's way have a right to come home and pursue the goals and dreams that they put on hold to fight a war overseas. These men and women deserve to find jobs, enroll in college, and get the social support they and their families need to find their way back to normalcy at home. Many will need support to heal from their physical wounds but also the invisible scars caused by the stresses of warfare.
Nearly 25% of New York State's veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, when our veterans seek mental health services, only half of them receive minimally adequate treatment. If left untreated, these wounds can lead to broken lives, broken families, and ultimately broken communities. Our servicemembers and their families deserve that we give our best back to them -- they deserve our commitment and our actions to stand behind them.
What are some of the actions we can begin to take?
First, community-based organizations, from social services agencies to community health centers, can start by identifying opportunities to reach out to returning veterans, and to ensure that their services are accessible and culturally responsive to the needs of military families. These groups might form partnerships with VA agencies, or engage community residents who are veterans to serve as peer outreach workers to help fellow military families navigate available services. Organizations can help create volunteer peer mentoring programs that create a supportive community of veterans. Groups like IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) are a great example of how to create a welcoming and warm community for veterans, by veterans.
Businesses should identify opportunities to create employment for returning veterans; they could also work with agencies to develop on-the-job training programs.
Government, foundations, and corporations can help to replicate models of community-based services that have been shown to be effective in serving military families. For example, organizations like the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, New York, are helping veterans find good job prospects, affordable housing, and educational opportunities as they reintegrate into their homes and communities.
All of us can do more to help expand the reach of organizations like these and multiply their efforts of supporting veterans and preparing communities to receive these soldiers when they come back home.