Returning Veterans Need Real Assistance

Since the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago promises made to our military men and women have been broken so many times that I have lost count. First, they were told it would all be over in a few months. It wasn’t.  After Baghdad fell there were unexpected problems with almost everything from the Iraqi civilian population to the equipment issued by the military. Many of our soldiers were sitting ducks as they patrolled the streets of places like Sadr City in unarmored vehicles. Rather than wade through the military bureaucracy, which kept reassuring them that everything was being done for their safety, soldiers took to scavenging for metal and re-enforcing their own vehicles. While Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s press conferences assured the American public that everything was fine, the situation became so critical that private citizens were donating money and steel plating to protect our troops.

Those wounded in action have had a particularly rough time. Many were wounded by Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), a popular weapon that is frequently used by terrorists and Islamic radicals. An IED is inexpensive, easy to assemble and causes particularly brutal injuries. If not killed outright many soldiers have serious brain injuries, scars over their bodies and frequently lose limbs. Our wounded soldiers were promised excellent medical care, which they seem to get on the battlefield.  Returning home, however, they are met with overcrowded Department of Veterans Affair’s hospitals, long waits and poor follow-up. Some of the worst examples recently have been uncovered at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington D.C., more or less the flagship of Army hospitals.

In addition to the regular military more than half a million Reservists and National Guardsmen have been called up since 9/11, the largest call-up since the Korean War. Regular military and Reservists were told they probably would be needed for one tour of duty. That is not turning out to be the case. Those lucky enough not to be severely wounded are finding themselves on their third, and in some cases fourth, tour of duty in Iraq. For career military people this often is difficult and sometimes even heartbreaking. For the Reservist and National Guard it has been completely unexpected, but at least their jobs are safe back home, right? The Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Act of 1994 guaranteed that. It required civilian employers to hold the Reservist’s job open — or one with a comparable description and pay — and to employ Reservists for at least a year after they returned from duty. Apparently, this is not what really is happening when our soldiers come home. One report states that as many as 22% of them lose their jobs and little is done to help them.

It is rather pointless to have an un-enforced law yet that is what many veterans and their advocates are claiming about the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Act. There is a website run by a group called the National Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve which is supposed to help with any issue regarding employment for returning Reservists. Reports about this group’s effectiveness mostly are dismal. Several articles in recent issues of USA Today and other newspapers claim to have called the 800 number listed on the website many times to speak to an ombudsman. Either calls are not returned or the telephone just keeps ringing. Meanwhile, complaints from returning veterans have risen 70% while few of the disputes seem to be easily resolved.

This was apparently not the case after the first Gulf War, when reservists were called up in fewer numbers and for fewer tours of duty. Sure, there was an occasional problem, which is why the law was written, to protect reservists in every state during future call-ups. There now is a Federal statute, a much more aggressive call-up of Reservists and the Guard who really need protection while the law is not enforced.  

One of the mistakes Congress made when writing this law was not placing   enforcement under the Department of Veterans Affairs. For some unknown reason, claims by employees who cannot get their jobs back go through the Pentagon and the Department of Labor, yet another labyrinth of bureaucracy and red tape.  The Pentagon does not keep any record of the complaints it receives, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but the Pentagon believes that one out of seven people has no job to which to return.

Enforcement should be handled through Veterans Affairs. It would be simpler and it would make sense. As with almost everything associated with this Iraq War nobody can help, nobody is held accountable, nobody knows what he is doing and our troops are paying the price for it — even when they come back in one piece and simply want their jobs back.