In the coming weeks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., will introduce new legislation that calls on the Veterans Affairs Department to be more proactive in informing and providing veterans with the services they're entitled to receive.
The legislation is called the Pro-Vets Act and would require the VA to offer each service member a thorough assessment of benefits and the materials they need to apply. Service members leaving the military would be automatically enrolled in VA health care. Gillibrand's office says that even though they are eligible for up to five years of free care, many never claim the benefit.
The senator is also calling for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which offers incentives to companies that hire veterans, to become permanent. Gillibrand is pushing for businesses to be permitted to write off 40 percent of the first $6,000 paid to returning troops.
Severe storms in New York prevented Sen. Gillibrand from leaving Washington to reveal the details of her plan at a roundtable discussion, but veterans' advocacy organizations, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, New York City leaders and corporate interests joined together to talk about ways to better coordinate care and services for veterans. They're working to create a community of support for soldiers returning from the battlefields, many of whom are struggling with depression, unemployment, homelessness and post traumatic stress.
Nearly 76,000 American veterans were homeless on a given night in 2009. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, experts believe up to 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says unemployment for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan now stands at nearly 11 percent, roughly two points above the national average.
"We need help. We need the support of all types of folks, from finance, from government, from business together focused in on these men and women who served," said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He's calling on community leaders to help veterans transition from combat to careers.
"You've got a young man or woman who's just come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. They're not getting a welcome back parade. They're getting an unemployment check. So I think that's unacceptable, and I think most Americans, when they find out that news, they're going to find it unacceptable too."
The event, held at the corporate headquarters of the global investment firm BlackRock, was pulled together by Services for the UnderServed, an advocacy group that focuses on helping people with mental disabilities and HIV/AIDS. Organizers want to see greater collaborative efforts to help returning vets.
"These men and women went there to protect us, and we as a community have to take that responsibility and respond in an effective and meaningful way," said Yves Ades, the group's senior vice president.
BlackRock Vice Chairman Ken Wilson III, who served as an officer in the Army during Vietnam, believes corporate entities can do a lot to ease the transition of troops from service overseas to the working world here at home. He says counseling and education are tools used by BlackRock.
"It's important we respect those people who've given so much to us," said Wilson. "First and foremost, hopefully to provide employment which has obvious benefits. The second is through mentoring, counseling, sharing of experiences. We participate in another program which is tailored specifically to mentor returning veterans and we have roughly 100 employees serving as mentors, so we think it's very important."