More Than a Bumper Sticker or a Kind Word... Please

Paul Evans

The boys – and girls – are coming home. They did the best they could under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. They did their part, have we done ours?

Governor Kulongoski established a Task Force on Veterans Services in 2008. The group evaluated federal, state, and local policies and reported back with a comprehensive package of recommendations for the 2009 Legislature to consider.

Nearly all of those recommendations were implemented: many through statute, others through executive action, agency rules, and a few through voluntary efforts. A team of committed, dedicated policy-makers and policy-wonks worked together to facilitate an agenda of targeted reforms and tailored administrative actions.

This program was implemented because all involved understood the scale, shape, and size of the challenges facing veterans living throughout Oregon.

Since then, Oregon has had to navigate some powerful currents. Our unemployment rate remains higher than the national average. Our economic recovery is undeniably bound to economic hiccups of other regions of America – to the uncertainties facing our global markets. The net result over the past two years has been a relative drift in terms of veterans outreach and programming because of the fiscal realities of our times.

Our will has been larger than our wallet. But the people who have been pulling rabbits out of the hat for the past decade are tired and worn; we have stretched far beyond our capacities.

Veterans understand the way of the world. We understand that “pro-veteran” policies are sexy during the war; that the expenses associated with good policies begin to disappear as the public becomes less interested in the war – and/or the warriors sent to fight it.

However, fiscal realities do not erase our obligations to the men and women sent on our behalf into Harm’s Way.

.5% of Americans have a direct connection to the sacrifices made since the terror of 9/11. Less than 1% of our population has shouldered the burdens…

This is the lowest percentage of the public directly involved in a sustained war since perhaps the Mexican War. It is a fact that warrants our attention: it underscores a schism between the people that enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... and those that defend those blessings.

Ironically, the weight of that burden fell disproportionately upon the same socioeconomic sub-groups that fought the Vietnam War: the rural/urban poor and the working class.

We fought this war with a combination of full-time and part-time warriors. In an era of an “All-Volunteer Military” we did not implement a draft – because we did not need to implement a draft. It gave us a false sense of serenity about the war-making enterprise.

Unfortunately due in large part to the Halliburton Vice-President, military service today provides fewer post-service direct employment opportunities because of a massive shift from uniformed support services to contractors and out-sourcing.

From 2003 to the present we have largely ignored our strategic concerns because of a need to sustaina a military capable of fighting asymmetrical warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We did this without a draft. However, had we implemented conscription it is a near certainty few upper middle class and wealthy sons and daughters would have been sent to fight the wars their parents voted in disproportionate numbers to support.

Neocons start wars for others to finish - for others to fight - for others to survive. But the war experience is not the end of the story for the men and women sent overseas.

In the wake of 9/11 President Bush sent the military to war, and the public to the shopping mall. He never challenged the people that had benefitted most for our society to come to its aid. Instead, Bush and his team were more than satisfied with allowing the "market" to determine who would and would not be wearing the uniform.

Since 9/11 most Americans were content to allow others to fight for the principles espoused by the men and women we elected. War was recognized as a necessary, but distant, policy.

It must be understood that militaries execute policies implemented by nations: Our America sent these men and women into Afghanistan, Iraq, and thousands of places across the globe in order to facilitate a safer, more secure, America.

Whatever people think of the policies (or the policy-makers) associated with the wars fought in our name, the fact remains: each, every military member warrants our assistance in the transition from wartime to peacetime.

The war in Iraq is now over – at least for us. The war in Afghanistan is entering its final chapter – at least for us. And the US Military is facing the inevitable down-sizing that follows major conflicts. We will see a disproportionate number of war veterans in the emergency rooms, the homeless shelters, and in the unemployment lines as a result.

However we got “here,” we are “here” now.

The boys – and girls – are coming home. They did the best they could under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. They did their part, have we done ours?

It is a moment of decision for our nation, state, and communities. Will we engineer a successful reintegration – a strategic plan for reorienting the energy, knowledge, and passion of this generation of citizen-soldiers, or will we hide our heads in the sand and allow an unsuccessful reintegration to define us – and them?

It is important to recognize that the work done in 2008/2009 in Oregon was historic. Many other states used our model as a framework upon which to build an integrated approach. The difference is this: many other states established policies and revenue streams simultaneously.

In Oregon we knew we could not adequately fund the model (our own) – but we hoped over time that we could identify and then realize a stable revenue stream – in order to prepare for the inevitable endgame (of more veterans, less federal monies).

In simplest terms, the 2008/2009 effort was intended as the beginning (not end) of a necessary public dialogue.

It was implemented in order to facilitate an integrated strategy for wise investment – including leveraging resources, rethinking regional delivery methods, and private/public partnering – for the greatest impact. Sadly, our Oregon has actually disinvested in veterans’ policies and programming in the last two years.

There is a sign of hope within the Governor’s Recommended Budget, but the $1.5 Million general fund increase does not replace the funds swept and opportunities lost in the previous two years. We need a sustainable revenue stream in order to maximize federal programming matches and models.

Several states have implemented set-asides for policy and programming intended to expand access and outreach for veterans. We are now witness to a slow but undeniable recovery from the abyss. Now is the time to define a permanent set-aside for veterans’ programming.

And while the bulk of the funding must come from the federal government, it does not take a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering to understand we have fewer resources than we have requirements.

It does not take a MENSA member IQ to know that 22 suicides a day by military members is something that cannot, must not, continue.

And it does not take a fortune-teller to recognize the warning signs associated with a generation of warriors struggling to make sense of life – and living – after spending a decade at war.

Oregon has no active duty base and therefore no sustained military support complex. We have enjoyed success in reintegration largely because of the heroic efforts of a precious few agency leaders and staff, the willingness of most legislators to listen to their conscience, and the hard-work of thousands of volunteers in big cities and small towns across Oregon.

Our efforts have been amazing given the relative resourcing.

We have done as well as we could have expected, but now is the time to reassert the necessity to act – and to act big.

Oregon could not have asked for better leadership at this crucial moment: Representative Greg Matthews is the chair of the Oregon House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ and Emergency Management, and Senator Brian Boquist is the chair of the Oregon Senate Committee on Veterans’ and Emergency Management.

These men are both combat veterans that understand the requirements; they are men deeply committed to making reintegration in Oregon a success. We need to call, email, visit, and write them – encouraging action at this critical hour.

The hard part (post-war phase) of reintegration is about to begin and without a sustained revenue stream for the programs that work – and have been invaluable – we will fail this latest generation of veterans.

A few years ago we knew that over $1,017.00 in federal resources came to Oregon for every $1.00 of state investment. Few (if any) state investments yield anything close to that kind of measurable, quantifiable success.

That thousand-to-one return on investment came in the form of education, employment, health care, housing, and transportation programming as well as in direct compensation claims to veterans that had earned benefits, but all too often did not know they had earned them.

Policies established in 2008 have helped thousands of veterans across Oregon. Military families now have access to programs that they would not otherwise have. But the high-water mark for the flood of returning veterans is coming right at us – and we cannot be effective with the existing resources available.

This Legislative Session we have an opportunity to challenge our leaders to do the right things – that in this case can also be demonstrated as the fiscally prudent things: we can invest in our veterans and secure a helpful, meaningful reintegration – if we want to.

Over the next six-months we will be asking the right questions.

There are bills about school safety, corporate personhood, and local government finance.

We must expand the list and demand a bill that establishes a small, stable, sustainable revenue stream for veterans programming.

Our obligations to our veterans are not now – and should not be – more important than our obligations to our children, to our sick, or to our planet – but they should be equally important to all.

It is time we recognized that a bumper sticker and a kind word is the beginning, not the end, of supporting our veterans.

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