This Veterans Day, we at the Center for American Progress honor the brave men and women who serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces—especially those who have given their lives or suffered physical or mental wounds. We also pay tribute to the families who have endured the absence of a loved one and dealt with the wounds of war in order to make this service possible.
As we remember the sacrifices made by all veterans since our nation’s founding, we thank those still serving on our behalf and keep them in our thoughts and prayers. The Iraq war is over, and the United States is on track to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of this year. Yet as our men and women come home from war, we must meet our obligation to provide them with the best possible care and support.
This by-the-numbers column outlines the challenges facing our service members and veterans, from combat stresses and injuries to unemployment. President Barack Obama and Congress must work together to take care of our men and women in uniform, especially as they navigate the difficult transition from military service to the civilian sector.
Who are our veterans?
- According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 4.5 percent of veterans were unemployed as of October 2014, compared to the national unemployment rate of 5.4 percent.
- However, Gulf War II-era veterans—those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—had a 7.2 percent unemployment rate in October 2014, with 188,000 out of work—higher than the unemployment rates for veterans of any other era.
- As of October 2014, women Gulf War II-era veterans were more likely to be unemployed, with an 11.2 percent unemployment rate compared to 6.2 percent for their male counterparts.
- Young veterans are the most likely to be unemployed. In 2013, 24.3 percent of male veterans between 18 and 24 years old and 8.9 percent of male veterans between 25 and 34 years old were unemployed. In 2013, 14.3 percent of female veterans between 18 and 24 years old and 9.8 percent of female veterans between 25 and 34 years old were unemployed.
Suicide and mental health problems
- There were 255 deaths by suicide in the active duty military in 2013—86 in the U.S. Army Reserves and 134 in the U.S. National Guard—down about 10 percent overall from 2012’s record high.
- Suicide rates declined 18 percent in the active duty forces and remained flat in the National Guard but increased by 20 percent in the Army Reserves.
- An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, although this number may be underreported. About 15 of these daily deaths by suicide, or almost 70 percent, were by veterans older than age 50.
- The suicide rate of male veterans younger than age 30 increased by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011—the most recent year for which data are available—even as the overall rate of veteran deaths by suicide remained steady.
- Veteran suicide rates have gone down by 16.1 percent between 1999 and 2010 for male veterans older than age 30 enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, or VA, health system. Among the national male population age 35 to 64, there was a 27.3 percent increase in suicide rates over the same time period.
- The VA’s suicide outreach program and improved mental health treatment is having a real impact: In 23 states, suicide rates for male veterans in the VA’s health system went down by around 30 percent. By contrast, suicide rates went up by around 60 percent among veterans who didn’t use the VA’s health system.
- The VA’s mental health treatment is improving, although much remains to be done. Suicide rates have declined among veterans in the VA health system who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, as well as among those who have survived a previous suicide attempt. Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line, a national suicide-prevention hotline, have increased every year since it was created in 2007, reaching 193,507 in 2012.
- According to a 2012 RAND Corporation study, about 14 percent of service members previously deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan reported symptoms indicative of probable post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
- National Guard and Army Reserve members, women, Hispanics, those who served longer deployments, and those who had more extensive exposure to combat were more likely to report PTSD symptoms.
- However, only about half of troops that self-reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression had sought treatment.
- Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, has emerged as a signature injury of the improvised explosive device, or IED blasts characteristic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Between 10 percent and 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have suffered a TBI, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates. About 10 percent of all TBI’s diagnosed between 2008 and 2011 were diagnosed in combat theatre.
- About 49,933 veterans were homeless in the United States on a single-night survey in January 2014.
- In 2013, veterans made up 12 percent of all homeless adults, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
- Veteran homelessness has declined by 35 percent between 2010 and 2014. The Obama administration has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. In 2014, the VA committed $1.4 billion to programs to prevent and end homelessness among veterans.
- According to a 2010 HUD study, young veterans are more than twice as likely to become homeless as nonveteran adults of a similar age.
- Asian, African American, and Hispanic veterans are much more likely to be homeless than white veterans.
- Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who become homeless are disproportionally from the lowest military pay grades: 72 percent of all homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans come from the 44 percent of veterans with the lowest pay grades, E1 to E4.
- 44 percent of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, even though just 18 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have received such a diagnosis.
- 27 percent of Army soldiers met the criteria for alcohol abuse in three or four months after returning from Iraq, according to a 2011 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- A 2009 Pentagon health survey found that one in four soldiers had abused prescription drugs.
- Combat veterans are 31 percent more likely to begin binge drinking than service members who do not experience combat.
- Surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that “from 2004 to 2006, 7.1 percent of veterans—an estimated 1.8 million persons 18 or older—met criteria for a past-year substance use disorder.”
- In 2010, about 788,000 veterans were diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder at a VA medical center. Alcohol abuse accounted for about half of the diagnoses, and 23 percent of veterans with a substance abuse diagnosis were also diagnosed with PTSD.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- The VA health system serves nearly 9 million veterans a year, with close to 92 million outpatient visits and more than 900,000 inpatient visits in 2013.
- Overall, the VA health system consistently delivers high-quality care, outperforming the private sector on metrics such as management of chronic conditions, cancer screening, and hospital care quality indicators. Mental health care is as good as, or better than, mental health care in the private sector.
- Accessing the VA health system remains a significant problem. Reports that multiple VA medical centers were falsifying patient wait times and keeping secret waiting lists in order to meet the goal of having all patients seen within 14 days sparked widespread outrage. This eventually led to the resignation of then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in May 2014. Robert McDonald, confirmed as the agency’s new secretary in July, has pledged swift action to transform the VA health system.
- The recently enacted VA reform law appropriated $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more medical providers, $1.3 billion to create 27 new VA medical facilities, and $10 billion to allow veterans to seek outside care if they can’t get a VA appointment quickly enough. It also allows faster termination for employees involved in the scandal.
- The VA system also struggles with outreach to women veterans, who are less likely to identify themselves as veterans. Many VA medical centers don’t offer important women’s health services, such as reproductive health and gynecological care.
- The VA has continued to improve the disability claims process and backlog, while expanding eligibility for vets suffering from PTSD, Agent Orange exposure, or Gulf War syndrome.
- Since August 2012, the number of pending disability claims has fallen by 40 percent, while the number of backlogged claims has dropped by 60 percent. The majority of veterans receiving VA disability compensation served during the Vietnam or Gulf War eras.
Military sexual trauma
- Both male and female service members have experienced military sexual trauma. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Defense survey, 4,113 service members reported experiencing sexual assault during their service in fiscal year 2013.
- Sexual assault is extremely underreported in the military: The actual number of service members who experience sexual assault was estimated at 26,000 in FY 2012. An estimated 6.2 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men experienced sexual assault in the military in 2012.
- Although women are more likely to be sexually assaulted, men make up the majority of victims of sexual assaults in the military. In 2012, an estimated 13,900 men and 12,100 women were victims of sexual assault in the military.
- In 2012, 1 in 5 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans told the VA they had experienced sexual abuse in the military.
- In FY 2013, the VA’s health system had 1,027,810 military sexual trauma-related visits, up 15 percent from FY 2012.
- The VA has struggled to provide support and appropriate treatment to male and female veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma. The VA has faced repeated claims that veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma are not always treated respectfully and provided appropriate care.
- The VA has also treated PTSD disability claims related to military sexual trauma differently from PTSD claims related to combat, requiring more documentation and enforcing requirements inconsistently.
How you can help
Below is a list of several organizations dedicated to helping the men and women of our armed forces and their families:
This Veterans Day, and throughout the year, remember those who have served in our armed forces, and honor their struggles and sacrifices.
Katherine Blakeley is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.