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 Aug. 31. That’s days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — the cataclysmic terrorist attack on America that prompted the military invasion of Afghanistan, 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. Today’s Daily Dose looks 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.
Andy Hirschfeld, OZY Correspondent
the battle back home
1. Going Hungry
About 27% of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are food insecure — more than double the rate of the general U.S. population. While soldiers of recent wars are the most likely to struggle to put food on the table, it's merely a magnification of what many vets 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 lifesaving — federal benefit,” the organization says.
2. Sleeping on the Streets
Not that the housing allowance is enough to avoid homelessness either. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 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 set 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 more vets consequently became homeless until well into 2022. That’s when HUD is slated to take its next survey on homelessness in America. Fortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs is stepping up its efforts. Earlier this month, the agency awarded roughly $418 million in grants to help address the problem.
3. Claims Denied
But the VA itself is part of the problem. As of April, it reportedly denied more than 70% of claims related to respiratory and other health problems as a result of 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 Sen. Jon Tester. If it becomes law, this bill could provide nearly 3.5 million vets exposed to burn pits with lifelong coverage.
4. Paying Their Debt
For many, the struggles over housing, hunger and health care are accompanied by a basic challenge: debt. A study from Pew Research reveals that a third of all veterans struggle to pay the bills. According to the FINRA Foundation, veterans are 33% more likely to be a part of the gig economy than their civilian counterparts. And things are getting worse. FINRA found that between 2015 and 2018, the percentage of veterans likely to report poor credit habits had risen by 11%. 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.
5. Good Guys to Bad?
Between financial, food, health and home insecurity, it’s little surprise that some vets might turn to crime. What might surprise you is just how bad things are. Violent crimes by vets of America’s post-9/11 wars have cost the country $26.4 billion, 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.
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Post-traumatic stress makes it hard for many of America’s 37,000 homeless veterans to adjust to living with civilians in traditional shelters. Now “villages” of tiny furnished homes, each one measuring 240 square feet, are emerging as transitional housing solutions for former soldiers. The veterans are guaranteed a roof over their heads, basic social services, training to rebuild a professional career outside the military and most importantly, a sense of community with other veterans to whom they can relate.
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 and 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 and believe it could help cut suicide rates among vets.
3. 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 its completion last year the results were promising and suggested that oxytocin could suppress the urge to turn to drugs and alcohol. Now a larger study is underway. Perhaps love — or at least a dose of the love hormone — is what vets really need.
Video games can be a great distraction from the pressures of society, and for vets, there are quite a few. For the wounded vet who may have lost a hand, using a game 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 the ex-soldiers to configure their own controllers based on their injuries.
Abby Leibman is on a mission to convince Congress to step up and change policies — including bringing 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. A former civil rights attorney, Leibman 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 policymakers who saw things that were revealing to them,” Leibman tells OZY. “All the words in the world won’t necessarily persuade policymakers until they see it for themselves.”
3. Early Intervention
According to the VA, 1.7 million vets received some kind of mental health care in 2019. And research by the National Institutes for Health shows that risk factors for suicide are significantly higher among 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 had a three-decade career with the U.S. Marines, is flipping that equation. Instead of expecting vets to reach out, his firm Clear Force proactively connects with ex-soldiers who may need help. “Veterans specifically have been taught to solve the riddle, push forward and try and get there by themselves,” Colonel 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 reach out to former military personnel with timely interventions.
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Thanks to compulsory military service, almost every adult in Israel is either an active 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, with groups such as Heroes to Heroes for instance, more than 200 American vets have made 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 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.
2. 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 a similar plight once they 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 with American democracy.
3. 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 assisting them with starting small companies. Through a new law that came into effect at the start of the year, China has introduced subsidized interest rates on loans taken by veterans to start businesses. The Chinese government also committed in 2020 to providing tax breaks for businesses that opt to employ former soldiers.
4. Swedish Draft
After more than a century of mandatory military service, Sweden had made joining the armed forces voluntary in 2010. But the move quickly backfired. In a country 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 leave.