WASHINGTON — Military veterans need the support of community groups to pick up where the government leaves off in helping with the challenges veterans and their families face, the military’s top officer said during a recent town hall-style meeting at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Most of today’s 2.2 million servicemembers will not stay in the military until retirement, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience. Instead, they will leave the military, many with physical or mental combat wounds, and needs not reported to the Veterans Affairs Department.
“We have a system in our country comprised of the Defense Department, the VA and communities across country, and too often those systems are disconnected,” he said. “I take my most precious asset – my people – and do everything I can for them when they serve, then turn them over to the VA, and many of them don’t have a clue about the VA and the services they provide. Then, they return to communities throughout the country.
“We sort of say, go back to your communities and have a nice life,” he continued. “We’re too detached from those who sacrifice so much.”
It was the latest such message from Mullen, who told the audience he chose USC partly because Los Angeles is his hometown, but mostly because staff and students are well connected to their surrounding community. USC is the latest of several locales he has visited this year to raise visibility on meeting veterans’ needs.
“It’s community leadership that needs to step forward to meet this,” he said.
Mullen, a 1968 Naval Academy graduate, said he is working to ensure the country provides better for its Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans than it did for those who served in Vietnam, many of whom he noted still sleep on the streets at night.
American attitudes toward veterans have changed dramatically in those four decades with mostly unconditional support for troops, the chairman said. “There is a sea of goodwill out there that wants to help,” he said. “I want to enable and help inform leaders of this need.”
Mullen described young veterans’ challenges as “immense,” with more than 30,000 physically injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands believed to be living with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Mullen’s wife, Deborah, an advocate for military families, also addressed the audience. She said many military spouses talk of their own anxiety, depression, anger and sleeplessness.
“People, literally, are unable to get up in the morning, and unable to get their children off to school,” she said.
Servicemembers and their families – including their parents – “are an integral part of one another,” Mrs. Mullen said, and resiliency must be built familywide. Also, families of the fallen continue to struggle through the federal bureaucracy; the long-term effects on children of having deployed parents still isn’t well-known; and female veterans, many with children in town, are the fastest-growing group of homeless veterans, she said.
Part of the problem, Mrs. Mullen said, is “a lot of us expected these wars to be over sooner than they were, and we weren’t prepared for so many multiple deployments. We are all trying to address this and a big part it is with the communities.”
The operational tempo of deployments is expected to slow with the withdrawal from Iraq next year, the chairman said, but the personal and family problems that result from combat service will continue. The veterans will need education, health care and jobs, he said, and investing in them is a good investment in America’s future.
“These are young people … and they have great opportunities and great potential to make an impact in so many positive ways,” Mullen said. “This is a generation whose service will not just be seen here in the military, but I think they will serve for decades to come. They will serve their communities, they will serve the nation, and I think they will serve the world.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)