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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Challenges Facing Veterans

In this undated photo provided by Maj. Gen. John Cantwell, left, the general talks with an unidentified injured man at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Cantwell, the former commander of Australia’s troops in Afghanistan, spent 20 years secretly suffering from PTSD, which began after he served in the Gulf War and grew worse as he rose through the military’s ranks. (Sgt. Neil Ruskin/AP)

In this undated photo provided by Maj. Gen. John Cantwell, left, the general talks with an unidentified injured man at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Cantwell, the former commander of Australia’s troops in Afghanistan, spent 20 years secretly suffering from PTSD, which began after he served in the Gulf War and grew worse as he rose through the military’s ranks. (Sgt. Neil Ruskin/AP)

Unemployment, homelessness and suicide are just some of the issues facing the 2.5 million veterans of our two most recent wars.

We learned this week that military suicides reached a record number in 2012, with 349 active duty members taking their own lives. That number does not include veterans who have committed suicide.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has programs to deal with these issues, but there are also a number of other organizations that have sprung up since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began more than a decade ago.

“It’s really an important historic moment, because now we’ve got guys who understand what war’s like. Chuck Hagel will be the first enlisted man to ever run the Department of Defense. That’s huge.”

One of them is Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America. With 200,000 members, IAVA is the first and largest organization of vets of those wars.

Time magazine recently called it “the most important organization representing the new generation of veterans.”

The group’s founder and CEO, Paul Rieckhoff, served as an infantry platoon leader in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2004. He calls the increase in suicides troubling, and says everyone – not just the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – should be involved.

“Every community based non profit, local veterans group, the faith-based community – everybody’s got to wrap their arms around these folks and get them the support they need,” Rieckhoff said.

In response to a question from a Here & Now listener about the G.I. Bill, Rieckhoff recommended that veterans go to newgibill.org to calculate their benefits.

“If you’re not in school and you haven’t looked at the G.I. Bill and you’ve served overseas, check it out,” he said. “It’s a great benefit. Schools are really stepping up and it’s going to position you for success. It’s still bumpy. The V.A. is getting out too many late checks. The administration of the benefits has been tough. But it’s a really, really tremendous opportunity.”

Rieckhoff said it means a lot to troops on the ground that President Obama nominated veterans to his second term cabinet: Sen. John Kerry as Secretary of State and former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

“You’ve also got Eric Shinseki, a wounded Vietnam vet at V.A., so you’re going to have – it looks like – three cabinet secretaries who are Vietnam vets,” Rieckhoff said. “It’s really an important historic moment, because now we’ve got guys who understand what war’s like. Chuck Hagel will be the first enlisted man to ever run the Department of Defense. That’s huge.”

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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