Are We Ready to Welcome the Soldiers That Obama's Bringing Home from Iraq?
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President Obama traveled to Camp Lejeune this week to announce the eventual drawdown of combat troops in Iraq. There's sure to be a lot of discussion about the details of the timeline, and a lot of politics getting in the way of any coherent military analysis.
But whether it is 16 months or 19 months or 23 months, whether the residual force is 10,000 or 50,000 troops, the president's new plan will create a surge of new veterans coming home in 2009 and 2010. We need to be ready.
Our duty to these brave men and women doesn't end when they leave the battlefield. Military families have borne a tremendous strain through more than eight years of conflict, and our troops are returning to the worst economy we've seen in decades. No veteran's 'welcome home' should come in the form of an unemployment check.
There are some concrete steps that must be taken. The new GI Bill must be properly implemented, so veterans can go back to school and train for civilian careers. Mental health resources must be expanded, so veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can get the care they need. And we must ensure that the network of veterans' hospitals and clinics nationwide have all the funding they need to cope with the influx of wounded troops.
This week, the president released his budget for veterans, which represents a strong step towards supporting our returning troops. The budget increases spending on health care and other vital veterans' programs by about 11%, and an increase in VA funding of $25 billion over five years.
These numbers are profoundly encouraging, but the devil is in the details. When the complete plan comes out in April, we'll be going over it with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that these budget numbers aren't reliant on increasing veterans' health care fees and copays. And I'm disappointed to see that the president has not included one of his campaign promises to veterans - advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Advance funding wouldn't cost any money, but it would help veterans' hospitals plan their budgets earlier, and bring an end to the care-rationing that hospitals are forced into when the budget is passed late. Every veterans' organization in the country was hoping to see this common sense solution in the budget this year.
Still, it's good to see the government beginning to do its part. But it will take more than just the politicians to support our veterans; every American has a responsibility to support those who've served. IAVA has done its part by launching a historic outreach campaign anchored by the groundbreaking website CommunityofVeterans.org. At this site, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can connect with one another and find critical mental health, education and employment resources to help with the transition home. No matter how you feel about the war, you can help support our veterans. If you want to help your community welcome home our troops, join us at www.iava.org.
Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America , and a veteran of the war in Iraq, where he served as a platoon leader with the Third Infantry Division.