The War Lives On for America's Vets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
America's longest war is over. But is it, for the thousands of U.S. soldiers who've fought in Afghanistan and other conflicts globally?
By Andrew Hirschfeld
America’s longest war is almost over. At least on paper. President Joe Biden has announced that the U.S. will complete the pullout of its troops from Afghanistan by August 31, days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — the cataclysmic terrorist attack on America that prompted the country’s military invasion more than 6,500 miles away. But for the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, many of whom have returned home in recent months, a different conflict is very much alive. From hunger to homelessles, the battle for survival is real for America’s vets. Today’s Daily Dose peels away those layers of neglect to look at the challenges faced by the country’s bravest, the unlikely fixes that could help them, the soldiers fighting for change and how vets around the world fare. Because America owes its vets more than platitudes.
The Battle Back Home:
- Going Hungry: Here’s some food for thought: 27% of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are food insecure. That’s more than double the rate of food insecurity in the general U.S. population. And while soldiers of recent wars are the most likely to struggle to put food on the table, their plight is only a magnification of what vets in general face. Overall, between 6% and 24% — the numbers vary across different studies — of U.S. vets combat food insecurity. A part of the problem is the way eligibility is designed for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit fighting to end hunger. Service members get what’s called a basic allowance for housing. But that allowance — which must go toward housing — is considered income for determining SNAP eligibility. That prevents many military families from accessing this “critically important — and often life-saving — federal benefit,” the organization says.
- Sleeping on the Streets: Not that the housing allowance is enough to avoid homelessness either. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 37,000 veterans were living on the streets at the start of 2020. And that was before the pandemic. With the eviction moratorium slated to expire at the end of July, the Department of Veterans Affairs is cautioning that the number could skyrocket. To make matters worse, we may not know how many vets are homeless well into 2022. That’s when HUD is slated to take their next survey on homelessness in America. Fortunately the VA is stepping up its efforts. Earlier this month, the agency awarded roughly $418 million in grants to help curb the problem.
- Claims Denied: But the VA itself is part of a problem. As of April, the VA reportedly denied more than 70% of claims related to respiratory and other health problems related to toxin exposure at burn pits (the military often disposes waste through large fires). That may change thanks to a new piece of legislation called The True Cost of War Recognition Act, championed by Montana Senator Jon Tester. If it becomes law, this bill could provide nearly 3.5 million vets exposed to burn pits with lifelong coverage.
- Paying Their Debt: For many, the struggles over housing, hunger and health care are accompanied by a basic challenge: debt. According to a study from Pew Research, a third of all veterans struggle to pay the bills. According to the FINRA Foundation, veterans are 33% more likely to take part in the gig economy than their civilian counterparts. And things are getting worse. FINRA found that between 2015 and 2018, the fraction of veterans likely to report with poor credit habits had risen by 11% (pdf). According to a 2020 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Recent vets are also 10 times more likely to have delinquency or credit defaults than before they entered the service.
- Good Guys to Bad?: Between financial, food, health and home insecurity, it’s little surprise that many vets would take to crime. What might surprise you is just how bad things are. Vets of America’s post-9/11 wars have cost the country $26.4 billion through violent crimes, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That’s five times the budget of the New York Police Department, the nation’s best-funded crime fighting force. Read more on OZY.
- Tiny Homes: Post-traumatic stress makes it hard for many of America’s 38,000 homeless veterans to adjust to living with civilians in traditional shelters. Now “villages” of tiny furnished homes, each measuring 240 square feet, are emerging as transitional housing solutions for former soldiers. The veterans are guaranteed a roof over their head, basic social services, training to rebuild a professional career outside the military and most importantly, a sense of community with other veterans they can relate to. Read more on OZY.
- Texas Treats PTSD With Psychedelics: Texas in June passed new legislation that will fund research into using psychedelic drugs like MDMA, Ketamine and Psilocybin to address mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder. The bipartisan legislation was signed into law last month. The legislation includes more than $1 million in funding to study the effects of psychedelics over a two-year period. The law is backed by groups that work on the mental health of former soldiers, who believe it could help cut suicide rates among vets.
- All You Need Is Love: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco studied the effects of oxytocin, otherwise known as the “love hormone” and its impact on active soldiers with PTSD. OZY reported on the study first in 2017, and on completion last year, it showed promising results, suggesting that oxytocin could suppress the urge to turn to drugs and alcohol. Now a similar study with a larger sample size is underway. Perhaps love — or at least a dose of the love hormone — is what vets really need. Read more at OZY.
Warriors for Change:
- It’s Not Just a Game: Video games can be a great distraction from the pressures of society. For vets, there are quite a few. However for the wounded vet who may have lost a hand, using a controller may not be so easy. Maryland based mechanical engineer Ken Jones figured out another way. He’s using his skills to adapt controllers so that wounded vets can use them. That’s not all. He’s also designing parts that allow vets to configure their own controllers, based on their injuries. Read more at OZY.
- Ending Hunger: Abby Leibman is on a mission to convince Congress to step up and change policies — including to bring more vets under the umbrella of SNAP — so that members of the military no longer need to worry about hunger. The president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has been at it for a decade. The former civil rights attorney recently testified on Capitol Hill about the issue and is cautiously optimistic. “I think the pandemic may have changed things for a lot of people — not only individuals who are struggling … but also for policy makers who saw things that were revealing to them,” Leibman tells OZY. “All the words in the world won’t necessarily persuade policy makers until they see it for themselves.”
- Early Intervention: According to the VA, 1.7 million vets received some kind of mental health care in 2019. And National Institutes for Health research shows that risk factors for suicide are significantly higher amongst vets than the civilian population. Yet 70% of vets do not reach out for help before taking their lives. Col. Michael Hudson, a former scuba diving instructor who then had a three-decade career with the U.S. Marines, is flipping that equation: Instead of expecting vets to reach out, Clear Force, his firm, proactively connects with ex-soldiers needing help. “Veterans specifically have been taught to solve the riddle, push forward and try and get there by themselves,” Col. Hudson tells OZY. Using data, Clear Force tracks financial and social risk patterns — such as large bank loans and frequent job changes — and helps the VA and other veterans’ support groups to reach out to former military personnel with specific interventions in time.
A Global Concern:
- All In the Same Boat: Thanks to compulsory military service almost every adult in Israel is either a serving soldier or a vet. That means that unlike in the U.S. and many other nations, isolationism is much less of a problem in Israel for former soldiers — so much so that several American vets make the trip to the Jewish nation in search of an experience they know they won’t find at home. But the country’s bureaucratic handling of veterans’ needs has drawn a raging backlash in recent months after a former soldier suffering from PTSD immolated himself in protest in April. Some soldiers have reported having to battle for years to convince the country’s officials that they suffer from PTSD and need help. Now Israel’s cabinet has approved a $92 million plan to upgrade support facilities for vets.
- Enemies on the Same Page: U.S. and Russian soldiers might be bitter adversaries in direct and proxy battles across the world, but they share much of the same plight once they’ve quit the military. A survey of Russian vets reported last year that half of them felt society wasn’t ready to embrace them and 43% were doubtful about their future prospects, while 18% said they needed psychological help. This, even as Russian online disinformation campaigns have targeted troubled U.S. vets to sow disaffection against American democracy.
- Startup Soldier: But while America and Russia struggle, China is trying to help its 57 million ex-soldiers adapt to life outside the military by helping them start small businesses. Through a new law that came into effect at the start of the year, China has introduced subsidised interest rates on loans taken by veterans to start businesses. The Chinese government will also provide tax breaks for businesses that opt to employ ex-soldiers.
- Swedish Draft: After more than a century of mandatory military service, Sweden made joining the armed forces voluntary in 2010. But the shift quickly backfired: In a nation where benefits accorded to vets in other nations are available to all Swedes thanks to a robust social security system, the number of youth volunteering to join the military plummeted. So amid rising tensions with Russia, Sweden reintroduced mandatory conscription in 2017. Only a few want to stay in the military in the long run. But at least they don’t need to worry about surviving outside the armed forces once they quit.
- Andrew Hirschfeld, OZY Author Contact Andrew Hirschfeld