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Not Doing Enough For Veterans

The sad reality is that many of the soldiers serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan will join the ranks of those who call the streets of America home.
 
 
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On this Veteran's Day, Americans are serving abroad far away from their friends and loved ones. Hopefully, each of them will return home safely, finish their commitments to the military, and move on to rewarding civilian lives.

But the sad reality is that many of today's service members, including those currently stationed in the combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, will join the ranks of those who call the streets of America home.

Indeed, the extent of the homelessness problem among veterans is already large. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), "as many as 200,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year."

Are we doing enough? Not by a long shot. The Director of Homeless Veterans Programs at the VA admitted to The Washington Times last winter that they serve 100,000 homeless veterans each year. By its own numbers, the federal government is not meeting its obligation to those who have served.

On a positive note, the efforts of organizations like U.S. VETS -- which provides housing and employment assistance for homeless veterans -- deserve more support from politicians and citizens alike.

It's easy for someone to buy a bumper-sticker to proclaim that we should "Support Our Troops." The reality of current government policies is far less than ideal, however. Budget cuts for VA mental health and substance abuse programs, which date back to the Clinton Administration, should be reversed.

The demand for VA services surrounding mental health and substance abuse is likely to increase very soon. Recent media reports indicate that rates of alcohol and other drug use are on the rise among those serving in Iraq. The Army's Surgeon General just issued the results of a survey finding that 30 percent of those returning from Iraq developed some mental health problem shortly after returning home.

Regrettably, many homeless veterans are faced with underlying substance abuse and mental health issues. Those issues may be the underlying causes of their homelessness. To be sure, military service does not automatically lend itself to substance abuse or mental health problems, much less homelessness. But for those who have fallen through the cracks, we must find more comprehensive and constructive ways to deal with these serious problems. Above all, we must pursue policies that put the overall health and well being of our veterans first.

The national tragedy of an underserved veteran population is compounded by the incarceration of veterans who are suffering from substance abuse problems. Thankfully, we no longer imprison the mentally ill. This should also be the case for those who are using alcohol and other drugs in a manner that is detrimental to their health.

When it comes to jailing our veterans simply because they are dealing with a substance abuse problem, this nation needs to radically alter its present course. Comprehensive treatment that provides a continuum of care must be our first response, not banishment to a jail cell. Those who have placed their very lives at risk in the name of duty, honor and country deserve this small concession -- and so very much more.

Do those politicians who brandish the title of "leader" have the dedication to do what is right by the least of these brave souls?

Nikos A. Leverenz is the Sacramento associate director of the Drug Policy Alliance .