Today, we commemorate those who have served this country. A unified chorus of support for veterans rings throughout the land. If there is any note of conflict, it revolves around whether the displays of gratitude let the public off the hook the other 364 days of the year.
There may be some truth to that. But simply extending the spirit of appreciation to the other 364 days won’t, in itself, provide the men and women who’ve served in combat with the support that they deserve. What’s required is some concerted and creative thinking about how to serve the needs of veterans in 2036, not just 2012.
In that year, assuming — as we surely can — that there is no universal draft, the number of veterans will have declined from 22 million today to 14 million. By then, the youngest Vietnam veterans will be 82 and the youngest post-9/11 vets will be in their early 50s. Virtually all of the World War II generation and most of the Vietnam generation will have passed, and their numbers aren’t likely to have been replaced by the voluntary force that we have today.
Anticipation of this smaller, more dispersed, and aging veteran population should drive policy planning and public consciousness, and there has been tremendous movement in that regard. But we still tend to focus too much on today’s concerns of younger veterans who, after a decade of war, are fighting against a tide of suicide, combat stress, homelessness, and unemployment.
Such urgent needs of the post-9/11 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will soon morph into a quite different set of concerns, focused on the unique requirements of these specific veterans, including many women, who have served longer, seen combat again and again, and then settled throughout the country. This will create a burden on the highly centralized veterans system that was designed after World War II and modified only slightly after Vietnam. This system looks increasingly unsustainable for this generation.
This bureaucratic behemoth will not hold. At $140 billion, the budget for Veterans Affairs is already larger than those of the State Department, US Agency for International Development, and the intelligence community — combined. Still, the delivery of services is too slow and, in the Internet age, too antiquated.
It is also too expensive. By 2014, according to most estimates, the costs of all benefits to veterans will surpass the personnel costs for the active forces, meaning that we will be spending more money on former troops than on current ones.
Concern over such a high percentage of defense spending being devoted to retirees is now animating planning at both the Defense Department and VA. It is also what inspired “Upholding the Promise,” a report by the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security and written by senior fellow Phillip Carter, an Iraq War veteran. The “promise” includes finding solutions to the immediate threats facing the post-9/11 veterans, now numbering at 2.5 million, while nonetheless rethinking the entire relationship between the federal government and veterans.
“The veterans population is undergoing tremendous change. In 10 or 20 years, we will have a smaller, more dispersed group, but one which places far greater demands on the VA and other agencies. This will have a tremendous impact on the administration of services in the future,” Carter told me.
What this means, Carter explained, is that the long-term needs of this population may need to be served by state and community-based agencies rather than large VA hospitals far from home. Speeding up the delivery of care will be as significant a challenge as maintaining the quality of care. Only by understanding the demographics of this population can we stop throwing money at a problem whose solution may require different thinking rather than more spending.
President Obama’s first term was defined by the ending of wars. His second term will need to reset how we talk about, and define, the obligations to those who fought those wars, not just in 2012 but in 2036.