In January in St. Louis I helped start a national movement to welcome our post-Sept. 11 veterans home with citywide parades and job fairs. Today, like many Americans, I’m looking for work. It’s tough out here.
As I hunt I feel some guilt about my good luck, though. I have advantages that the 1 percent of the population who fought our longest American wars doesn’t have. I don’t have long lapses in my employment history. I haven’t lost years of ongoing job training that would put me further out of touch with current trends, needs and best practices in the American workplace. I have all my limbs and eyes. Most of my closest personal support group is alive and in good health.
Last week a bipartisan, billion-dollar bill to put 20,000 veterans to work in our communities was killed on the floor of the Senate. The politicians who blocked the bill cited concerns over technicalities: The bill violated a “pay as you go” clause that would make passing it procedurally unorthodox.
In this time of crippling national debt and a sluggish economy, the concern seems valid. A billion dollars is a lot of money, and we are already hopelessly overspent as a nation. But according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that oversees governmental spending, the average monthly cost of the Iraq War was well over $9 billion.
Think about that: For what we spent to fight about three days of the Iraq War, we could have put 20,000 of the people who fought it back to work here, in our communities, where they could do the kinds of things for us that we were paying them — and getting them killed — to do for foreign countries.
But politicians said this was against procedure. The bill is dead and can’t be revived in this version until late next year.
As a country, in the decade since Sept. 11 we have essentially told our citizen-soldiers, “Go wage many years of warfare in the most hostile environment imaginable. Count on countless lost days away from everything you know and love. Some of you won’t come back, obviously, but for those who do ... good luck. We have other problems.”
The unemployment rate for veterans is a third higher than it is for the rest of us. The suicide rate is incalculably higher. Every 80 minutes a new veteran who survived the wars decides that he or she can’t survive this kind of American peace. I met the father of one of these men in Oklahoma City while the Marine was still alive, but we weren’t able to find his son a path back to dignity in time to save him. That Marine is now a casualty of the second half of the Iraq War, which we are fighting and currently losing here at home.
Is this who we are in America? Do we have the money, the drive and the enthusiasm to get our military personnel killed, but not enough to help them land a job and put dinner on the table for the families we made them leave behind?
An old adage says the easiest thing in the world to do is nothing, and that is what our government did last week for the American military families we asked to sacrifice so much: nothing.
Fortunately, as citizens all over America have and continue to prove this year, we don’t need the government to lead the way on welcoming our veterans home and getting them back to work in our communities. In December, Chicago will join a long list of cities where citizens, private businesses and the military community have banded together to try and meaningfully engage our returning warriors and get them back on the job here at home. We’ve done this because we get what Washington seems to have forgotten: These men and women who carried the war load for us are people, they are not politics.
Now more than ever — before even another 80 minutes passes — every patriotic American must stand up where our political leaders have knelt down. If you own a business or know someone who does, get a veteran’s resume and move it to the top of the stack. Think about the pressures and difficulties the veteran navigated in his or her last position. Imagine the people skills he or she had to learn on dangerous streets of Baghdad. Weigh the management skills it takes to keep a platoon alive under enemy fire against what he or she would face at your water cooler.
If we do these things for our veterans we will discover the obvious thing that Washington has forgotten. Betting on American veterans isn’t just patriotic and smart, it’s good business.
Craig Schneider is a writer and veterans advocate, and founder of Operation Welcome Home, a national movement to throw citywide parades and job fairs for returning veterans.