Coming Home

Veterans Day. It's our chance to thank the men and women who wore our country's uniform for their service and sacrifice. As Joe Biden said during the recent presidential campaign, our society collectively bears a "sacred obligation" to care for the people who put everything on the line for us.

But the travails of veterans don't disappear on the other 364 days of the year. There are more than 22 million veterans in the U.S. today. Fully 30 percent of them struggle at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

These days, that means that some six-and-a-half million veterans risk economic insecurity, hunger and homelessness. You would imagine that people at both ends of our broad political spectrum (and everyone in between) agrees that this is unconscionable.

Why is it so? The fragile state of the economy is partly responsible. In a nation still reeling from the aftereffects of a vicious recession, people from all walks of life continue to suffer. Veterans are no exception.

Other reasons are specific to veterans themselves. Many left civilian life without completing their education. To be sure, they've had valuable technical and leadership training in the military. But they need to complete their degree, or find a means to translate that training into marketable job skills. And most have to do this while supporting a family.

A third problem today's veterans face is difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. Many have suffered physical injury; more still have endured psychological trauma.

Then there's the vestige of military culture. Our men and women in the armed forces are drilled to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. They report to duty even if they're not at 100 percent, and they don't complain. These very virtues of the military ethos can be liabilities in civilian society. It's not a sin to ask for help or advice when you need it and you've earned it. And, by contrast, all the toughness and grit in the world won't by themselves put food on the table or pay the mortgage.

Last but not least, the help available to veterans and their families is not as easy to come by, or to understand, as it should be. Despite universal eligibility for government supportive services -- from health care coverage, education, disability benefits, home mortgages, unemployment assistance and other services -- only 36 percent of veterans received benefits and services from the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) in 2008. For recent veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, only 47 percent received VA healthcare in 2010. A recent RAND corporation study found that more than 40 percent of veterans didn't understand what benefits were available to them, and 25 percent didn't know whom to ask about them.

These veterans' plight is clearly a combination of not knowing about the help they can get, and not wanting to ask for it because of their sense of self-reliance.

The VA, good as it is, can't reach out and provide services to veterans alone. It needs to work in conjunction with civil society.

There are very few such models for helping struggling veterans out of their predicament. Rahm Emanuel has initiated dedicated veterans' resource centers at all community colleges in Chicago. This pilot program gives veterans scholarships, support and college credit for some of their military service and training. My own organization has started a seven-site pilot program in New York to support veterans and all their family members with benefits advice, services and counseling, in one place, at one time.

One thing about which we're particularly excited at Single Stop is using returning veterans themselves as outreach partners to encourage their fellow veterans to get help and advice. Fellow vets know what it's like to come home. And they know how to break through the self-reliance that isolates so many of our returning men and women from the help available to them.

But there's a great deal more still to do. We need more of these pilot programs, because we still lack enough good program models to bring to scale. Under Secretary Shinseki, the VA has committed to enabling a 21st century benefits delivery and services system. We need to figure out today how to coordinate the VA's national efforts with the local outreach of businesses and community organizations. We need to see what works to put veterans on a secure economic footing, as we prepare for the return of hundreds of thousands in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan years. And we need to find a way for struggling veterans to swim to safety and security, not just to tread water.

As a society, we have often failed to recognize the harm that has come to those who put themselves in harm's way. We reviled a generation of veterans - those from the Vietnam conflict - because they fought in a war that we collectively found unpopular. They bore a double injury: the physical and psychological wounds of the war itself, and the hurt of the contempt in which their fellow citizens held them when they returned.

Yes, we honor our veterans today with accolades that rarely passed the lips of Americans greeting soldiers and sailors returning from Vietnam four decades ago. And (for the most part) our praise does not depend on whether we supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or opposed them.

But actions, of course, speak much louder than mere sentiments of gratitude. And on that score, we have yet to face the true test. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars come to a close, we will welcome back whole divisions of military men and women.

The test of our promise to our veterans isn't how many flags we display on Veterans Day, or how often we salute men and women in uniform. The measure of how we honor them is how well we welcome back our brothers and sisters into the fold of our society.