By Mike Mullen and Steven A. Cohen
Our nation is finally emerging from one of the worst recessions in American history, yet for our military veterans there is no recovery in sight. The nation's unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. But the unemployment rate of our youngest military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan hovers at a stunning 29 percent.
Consider that: Nearly one in three Americans who fought to defend us in distant lands cannot find a job here at home.
And the problem is about to get a lot worse. With the war in Iraq over and the mission in Afghanistan winding down, and the imperative of getting our national debt under control, Congress and the administration are reducing military spending. Under current plans, at least 100,000 men and women will leave military service in the next five years. Last fall political leaders failed to reach agreement on a bipartisan plan to reduce the deficit. As a result, the Defense Department budget could be slashed by an additional $600 billion beginning in January 2013 â€” cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called "catastrophic." That could result in even more service members being pushed out the door in coming years. We should start preparing for this influx of new workers in the job market.
America's veterans are a tremendous human capital resource. They are responsible, hardworking and loyal. They possess strong leadership skills and a work ethic that would be valued at any place of business. They have also benefited from technical training and education that is second to none. An Army logistics manager who moved billions of dollars of equipment and tens of thousands of personnel into and out of war zones is perfectly positioned to help a U.S. business move goods and services for its customers. Regrettably, many employers still do not appreciate how the skills our veterans hone on and off the battlefield can help their businesses win here at home. We need to show them and offer them tools to better incorporate veterans into the workplace.
We also need to help our veterans address another roadblock to employment: access to treatment for the trauma of war. Some of those returning from combat zones suffer from depression, trauma and post-traumatic stress. These are treatable conditions, and we've learned a lot about how to help people cope with them. But many vets never get the treatment they need â€” and the families who suffer alongside them, and whose support is essential to successful treatment, are ineligible for care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Without proper support, it is little wonder some vets have trouble finding or holding down jobs. When they are unable to find work, they can also lose their homes. Twenty percent of New Yorkers sleeping on the streets are veterans, according to the city's Department of Homeless Services. Many of these men and women fought for us in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq. It is unacceptable that they are now homeless.
The struggles our veterans face are such that 18 of them commit suicide every day, according to recent reports. That is more than 6,500 suicides per year. As of last week, 6,414 U.S. service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, suicide kills as many of our troops in one year as our enemies have killed in the past decade.
Addressing the challenges of our veterans must be a national priority. After our country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, these young men and women stepped forward to serve. They volunteered to put on the uniform knowing the dangers that come with military service. Because of their courage, we have gone nearly 11 years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil.
Americans are grateful for their service â€” but our gratitude is not enough. The Robin Hood Foundation is convening a summit of military and business leaders, mayors, members of Congress, veterans and others on Monday to address veterans' challenges in finding the work, homes and treatment they need.
Every veteran deserves the chance to provide for his or her family. Every veteran deserves access to treatment for the trauma he or she experienced while defending us. And every veteran deserves the chance to live a life of dignity in the country whose freedom he or she helped secure.
These young men and women fought for us. Now it's our turn to fight for them.
Adm. Mike Mullen served from 2007 to 2011 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Steven A. Cohen is founder of S.A.C. Capital Advisors. They are co-chairs of the Robin Hood Foundation's veterans advisory board.