The war in Iraq is coming to a close. We will withdraw all 50,000 remaining troops from Iraq by the end of the year and have already started drawing down combat troops from Afghanistan. In Colorado, that means approximately 400 Fort Carson soldiers will come home from Iraq in December alone. Some will join the 400,000 veterans already living in Colorado and begin to make a life for themselves and their families in communities across the state.
As the nation faces an influx of returning troops and new veterans, we need to be ready.
Our newest veterans are returning home to a savage economy and communities that may not understand the challenges of their reintegration. These soldiers are some of the most highly skilled workers in the country, yet exiting service members face unique challenges that make finding employment difficult upon their return home.
Employers are often unfamiliar with the transferable skills they bring to the table. But these skills are exactly what the civilian workforce should value most: leadership, decisiveness, the ability to assess risks and to work well in a team.
Despite the skills our veterans have to offer, the unemployment rate for veterans climbed from 9.8 percent in August of this year to 12.1 percent in October — about 3 percentage points higher than their non-veteran peers.
Last year, the unemployment rate for young veterans ages 18 to 24 spiked to 21.1 percent.
It’s time to look for new, innovative ways to connect them to the careers and support they have earned. The American people want to help recognize the enormous sacrifice of our veterans and military families, who have borne the full burden of our safety and the nation’s defense.
Less than 1 percent of the current U.S. population serves in the military. In other words, 1 percent of Americans shoulder 100 percent of the responsibility of keeping our country safe.
And it falls to all of us — as individuals, as communities, as Americans — to ensure the incredible sacrifice of America’s returning war fighters is properly honored with the support and respect veterans deserve.
In many ways, Colorado has done better than other states to support military families and veterans. Our unemployment rate for veterans is lower than the national average, and our state has done much to organize communities around services for veterans.
We have a new model that is leading the way. The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) developed a Network of Care website that provides a centralized, Web-based information resource for military families and veterans. The website is only one component of a larger strategic planning initiative that attempts to bring community leaders, military installations, local businesses and nonprofit service providers together to provide a community-based system of care.
Without this type of collaboration, in some communities, veterans can fall through the cracks in the systems that support them.
This week, I introduced a bill to bring this Colorado-based innovation to the rest of the country. The bill would create a National Veterans Foundation to support communities attempting to work together on a “blueprint” model like Colorado Springs.
There are many public and private organizations that provide services, but veterans often have trouble navigating them due to gaps and overlap. The foundation would fill the gaps by helping communities align and leverage services.
Rather than creating a new bureaucracy or entity to take the place of existing organizations supporting veterans, the foundation would better utilize the public and private resources that already exist at no cost to the taxpayer.
The foundation would provide the technical expertise communities need to help with strategic planning and better connect them to resources — both existing public resources and new private partners. Such a foundation could also provide analytical support and map resources for veterans across the country to determine where we are doing things well and where we must improve.
As we prepare to bring our men and women home from Iraq by the end of the year, this year’s Veterans Day has a special significance. It is time for all of us to do everything we can to better serve the one percent of brave Americans who have done everything that has been asked of them.
Michael F. Bennet (D) is a United States senator for Colorado. Bennet is a member of the Senate committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and the Special Committee on Aging.