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In Their Debt: A Reminder of Our Duty to Vets

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Recent reports of a record level of active-duty military suicides in July 2012 add another grim dimension to the horrors of war. Equaling nearly one per day, the 26 deaths bring to 142 the total number of servicemen and women who have taken their own lives through the first seven months of this year. (By comparison, there were 165 active-duty suicides in all of 2011, the U.S. Army reported.) Army Vice Chief of Staff General Lloyd J. Austin III goes so far as to call suicide "...the toughest enemy I have faced in 37 years..." in the military.

Yet, those shocking figures pale in contrast to the physical, mental and social challenges confronting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there are no current statistics on suicide rates among veterans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously estimated that figure at 6,000 annually. On August 31, in tacit acknowledgement of combat-related psychological wounds like post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic-brain injury (TBI), President Obama issued an executive order instructing the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase veteran crisis hotlines by 50 percent before year end. The edict, among other provisions, is intended to ensure that any veteran in distress gets access to a trained mental-health clinician within 24 hours.

Social stigmas surrounding mental health treatment, in general, and the conditions afflicting veterans, such as PTSD, which had not even been identified a generation ago, have largely dissipated. Regrettably, though, those veterans in crisis and in greatest need of assistance still view these disorders as badges of shame. Today, veterans by and large enjoy the respect of a grateful nation. From a personal standpoint, I am heartened by this attitude toward veterans, which stands in stark contrast to the negative public sentiment of the 1970s, when I served as a U.S. naval officer.

In comparison, there seems today no lack of programs supporting soldiers' re-entry to civilian life; unfortunately, these efforts are proving ineffective and uncoordinated. We must continue to shine a light on the plight of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women deserve our respect, gratitude and support confronting a range of "invisible wounds:" staggering levels of unemployment, mental-health issues, homelessness, soaring divorce rates and other familial problems.

Estimates place between 11 and 20 percent the number of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans thought to suffer from PTSD. Twenty-seven percent of Iraq veterans screened three to four months after return from deployment met criteria for alcohol abuse and related harmful behaviors (drinking and driving, illicit drug use and the like). Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are 50 percent more likely to be homeless than the general population.

Los Angeles, in fact, leads the nation with the greatest number of homeless vets -- 8,000 or 15 percent of the county's total population on the streets -- and a majority of these are suffering from PTSD or other mental illnesses. Military family divorce rates have shot up 42 percent since the outset of Gulf War II, according to the publication Air Force Times.

The federal government -- principally the Department of Veterans Affairs -- cannot go it alone here. We must redouble our initiatives through a coordinated triumvirate of the public, private and nonprofit sectors, committed equally to bold thinking and pragmatic, result-oriented and quick-response efforts.

Numerous nonprofits have emerged to support returning vets and to address the issues above. Examples of outstanding local programs receiving recent grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which I proudly chair, include:

The rationale for why a Jewish foundation elected to award grants to programs supporting our veterans is simple: We believe it's the obligation of all Americans, including Jewish-Americans, to step up. The Jewish Community Foundation's mission includes support for pressing societal issues and, in doing so, we aim to be exemplars to others by championing worthy initiatives like the preceding.

A nearly 30 percent unemployment rate among young (18-24-year-old) Gulf War II veterans and joblessness of 13.4 percent among 25-34-year-old vets underscore why investment from the private sector in job training and hiring must be nurtured. The Obama administration has urged the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. Many companies have risen to this challenge and announced new commitments to train or employ veterans. The Walt Disney Co.'s "Heroes Work Here" program and leading efforts by Amazon are great examples of companies putting our veterans first among equals in a tepid job market. The government could support this effort by moving with greater speed to get the military to provide official credentials and licenses for veterans whose training provides them with specific skill sets which translate seamlessly into the workforce.

Finally, we need sustained public education initiatives. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, lead Joining Forces to raise awareness and rally all segments of society -- individuals, businesses, communities, philanthropists and faith-based organizations -- to recognize and support veterans and military families. Continued public recognition and understanding of veterans' invisible wounds -- making the issue a priority -- are critical to broader solutions and treatment.

Former anchorman Tom Brokaw has called the plight of our veterans a "moral crisis." We need to address this collectively by demonstrating our commitment beyond heroes just working here. Let us show that our heroes will be cared for, venerated and provided the critical services that enable them to lead fulfilling, productive lives outside the military.