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Our debt to veterans is overdue


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By Maurice Johannessen and Brian Dahle

The veterans of the post-9/11 era have endured the strain of serial deployments to treacherous combat zones with blurry lines between friend and enemy, civilian and soldier.

That is difficult enough. For all too many young veterans, though, the challenges of wartime service don't end when their time in uniform is over. Instead, peacetime's respite brings new struggles -- with joblessness, with hopelessness.

Military service teaches discipline, leadership and practical skills, and that shows in the job market. Overall, veterans are more likely to be employed than the general population. Sadly, though, that is not the case for the youngest veterans.
Those who've served since 2001 faced an unemployment rate of 9 percent last year, compared with 7 percent for the broader workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For veterans under 25, who might have served an enlistment term and are readjusting to life in the civilian world during recent years' rocky economy, the jobless rate was grim -- more than 21 percent.

Today's young veterans are also coming home with more disabilities, compared with prior generations. A full 29 percent of veterans who have served since 2001 report a service-related disability, twice the share of veterans overall.

These high rates of unemployment and disability, in the direst cases, can lead to despair. Some 22 veterans a day commit suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports, and the suicide rate for male veterans under 30 is a full three times that of their counterparts who didn't serve. They survived the hazards of war, but tragically lose their way when they return home. It's a shocking tragedy, and we need to do better by these men and women who've done so much for us.

Most veterans services are funded and managed by the federal government, but a critical link in California is the county veterans service office. Typically operating on tiny budgets with staffs to match, these local offices do the immensely important work of helping veterans and their families navigate the bureaucracies involved in medical care, pensions, college benefits and other services.

The value to the veterans is obvious, and we help them because it's the least we can do in return for their service. But doing the right thing also has financial benefits. For every dollar the state has spent in helping veterans collect the benefits they've earned, nearly $100 in federal benefits have flowed back to California. In Texas, the state employs roughly twice as many service officers per veteran as California, and in turn substantially more of its veterans collect the federal benefits they are due.

Despite the clear financial payoff, the state has long been stingy in funding county veterans service offices. Legislation being considered this year, Assembly Bill 2703, would change that. AB 2703 would more than double the money available through the state Department of Veterans Affairs, with extra incentives available for the programs that are especially innovative in their outreach or simply provide the best service.

Budget discipline in Sacramento is important, but it is a false economy to shortchange programs with a demonstrated financial benefit.
In any case, this isn't about accounting for dollars. It's about the moral debt we owe to those who put their lives in danger. It's time to stop the excuses and do everything we can to keep our promises to veterans -- and to stop burying those who survived war because we didn't do enough to help them face the challenges of peacetime.

Senator Maurice Johannessen (retired) represented Northern California and served as Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents the 1st Assembly District in the California Legislature, which includes Shasta, Lassen, Nevada, Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas, and Sierra Counties, and portions of Butte and Placer Counties.

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