If the NFC and AFC title games from this past weekend reminded us of anything, it's that America loves clutch performances. The first three quarters are great for backdrop, but it's performing when the pressure is at its highest that creates the best memories and the biggest stars. A quarterback that can perform under pressure makes all the difference in the world. For some of you, that means Tom Brady. For Giants fans like me, it's been Eli Manning all season long. When the game is on the line, the great players step up.
Same goes for politics. Tonight, President Obama is set to give his third State of the Union address before an audience of millions. It's a momentous speech not just because the clock is ticking on his legacy and because it's an election year, but it's the first address in eight years without U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad. The Iraq War is over and the Afghanistan War is winding down. America is on third down. And tonight's speech is a defining moment for the President to rally our entire country's support for the folks who have put it all on the line for the last ten years. The folks we call the New Greatest Generation. For a decade, the almost 2.4 million veterans of these wars have carried the burden of a nation all by themselves. Now, it's time for the nation to return the favor. And it's up to the President to lead the way.
As all eyes turn to Capitol Hill tonight, I'll join 20 fellow Iraq vets on the House floor and millions nationwide and overseas who are looking for three crucial promises from the President:
1. A commitment to end yet unemployment. As the jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans rose to 12.1 percent in 2011--climbing for the fourth consecutive year--the President must encourage Congress and the public and private sectors to support our troops by hiring them. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which IAVA helped spearhead, was a crucial start. But it was just the tip of the spear. In 2012, we need the President and Congress to rally the private sector to do more, while creating policies in Washington that make it easier for employers to hire new veterans, especially as the Department of Defense downsizes the force under the President's new defense strategy.
2. A promise to protect the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other critical Department of Defense and VA benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has sent nearly 500,000 veterans and their families to college to date. But right now it's under the siege of for-profit predators and potential budget cuts. Our Commander-in-Chief must call on Congress to stand firm in a bipartisan front against any cuts to this invaluable benefit. As he rolls out his new Defense strategy, the President must also commit to protect military pay, retirement benefits and healthcare for military families and retirees. We have an obligation to ensure the long-term health and financial stability of our nation's troops and veterans--now is not the time to nickel and dime them.
3. A focus on suicide. 393 service members from all services were killed in action in Operations Enduring Freedom and New Dawn last year. By comparison, the U.S. Army reported 278 soldiers may have committed suicide in 2011--and that's just one branch. After losing nearly as many troops to suicide as to combat in 2011, the President must devote the country's full attention and resources this year toward stemming this crisis and destigmatizing invisible wounds. The First Lady's partnership between Joining Forces and the country's top medical schools to treat invisible wounds is a step in the right direction. But the VA and Pentagon do not have this problem under control yet. The President must issue a broader call to action that reinforces the need for more military mental health providers and a national suicide prevention campaign between the Departments of Defense and VA, veterans groups and community-based nonprofits nationwide. Too many lives are at stake.
So as he takes the spotlight tonight, the President must bring these life and death issues impacting our troops, veterans and their families to the forefront. He needs to put Congress and the entire country on notice that our troops are coming home--and we have a bargain to uphold. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have paid their fair share for our country. Now, it's show time for the rest of America.
It's fourth quarter. Play clock is counting down. And 2012 needs to be the year for all Americans to step up to support them.
Will the President lead the charge and prove his clutchness by showing he has vets' backs in real, meaningful ways that transcend words? Or squander the opportunity?
Stay tuned. The game is on the line.