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Making a Stand for Our Veterans

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Today's news is filled with discussion about our national debt and what we must do about it. On this Veteran's Day, I would like to talk about another national debt -- the one we owe to our 24 million American vets. This immeasurable debt can never be fully repaid, but as individuals coming together as a community, we can do a lot to pay down some of that debt.

This Veteran's Day, I'll be walking with our veterans in their annual parade in Johnstown. This western Pennsylvanian city showed what you can do when you stick together as a community by overcoming one of the greatest disasters in our nation's history when they rebuilt their town after the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

In addition to parades, every Veterans' Day, I have visited veterans in federal prison. I feel compelled to go to penitentiaries to offer support to them because far too many prisoners are there as a direct or indirect result of their military service.

Approximately half of our vets in prison today are there because of drug and/or alcohol related crimes, often associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses that are caused or exacerbated by combat duty. When our Vietnam vets returned home, they were often treated with disrespect, and without any understanding of PTSD. For a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, our servicemembers have gone "outside the wire" into combat conditions almost every day for the 15 months of their deployment; returned home for 12 months, and then did it all over again... and again. It's no surprise that over a third of them return home burdened with PTSD and/or other mental challenges. And when they are discharged, they have faced a recession, and now a jobless economy. Not surprisingly, our Iraq and Afghanistan vets are showing up in the homeless ranks more quickly than those who served in Vietnam or the Korean War.

When long-term factors such as PTSD and other disabilities are considered, research at Harvard University has shown the overall cost of America's war in Iraq alone is over 3 trillion dollars. Some demographics are more adversely impacted, or more neglected. About one in five women seen in Veteran Hospitals respond "yes" when screened for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and one in 15 of our homeless population is a female veteran.

Obviously, many vets struggle with -- or without -- these issues and remain singular achievers. I was honored to wear the uniform of this nation for 31 years in the U.S. Navy, inspired to serve by my father's example, another career-Navy man who fought in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. He returned home to a successful career and a strong, supportive family, with unlimited opportunities available to him. Unfortunately, that is not the case today for many of our veterans.

It will take the community of America -- all of us -- to ensure we address the job training, mental assistance, education and health care needs of our veterans. Undoubtedly, our national debt crisis necessitates a shared sacrifice going forward. But let us keep in mind that only 1 percent of American families sacrificed up front with a loved one who volunteered to serve in our recent wars overseas.

We have learned from the way we mistreated our Vietnam veterans. Now we embrace our troops as they return home. But, this is still not enough. The real value of Veterans Day is not so much to recognize their service; it is to remind us that our veterans live alone every day with the burden of the war they brought home. They should not do so. Otherwise, it can mean incarceration -- in mental illness or prison, in unemployment or addiction -- for so many who risked their life for our American way of life.

As we are forced to make the needed cuts to help get us back on track financially as a nation, it's important that we also stand together for who we are as Americans by ensuring that our veterans are not short changed in the process. Not by speeches, but by deeds. As a church deacon once put it, it is more important that "...what you do speaks so loudly, that I cannot hear what you say."

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