Veterans Day Panel

In recognition of Veterans Day 2013, Volunteers of America and the RGK Center at the LBJ School of Public Affairs hosted a panel discussion on the many challenges facing America’s veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Panelists also discussed ideas for building a strong framework of support to help military men and women successfully return to civilian life. The event was moderated by Mike King, President and CEO of Volunteers of America. Panelists included Robert Hutchings, Dean, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Admiral Bobby R. Inman (Ret.), Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy, and Former Director, National Security Agency; and Jonathan Sherin, MD, Ph.D, Executive Vice President, Military Communities, Volunteers of America. 

Admiral Bobby R. Inman opened the discussion reflecting on some of the differences for veterans returning home from Vietnam and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The panelists agreed that while there is general public appreciation for military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is also limited understanding of the experiences of these veterans both in combat and in returning home. 

Many of the challenges associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are new, leaving our social service infrastructure underprepared to provide services to returning vets. First, as the longest lasting military engagement in US history using a volunteer force, military personnel are subjected to extended length tours and multiple deployments. The prolonged exposure to life-threatening circumstances creates a “perfect storm” for trauma with lasting impacts on the mental health of veterans and their families. 

In addition, service providers have not kept pace with the changing roles of women in the military. In addition to combat trauma, female veterans struggle with issues of sexual harassment and power inequalities, and with 40 percent of women soldiers leaving behind dependents to go to war, the impacts on children and families are essentially uncharted territory.

Further, with advances in evacuation procedures and medical treatment, the number of returning wounded veterans with severe injuries has increased substantially, creating another new stress on the social service infrastructure.

To meet these challenges, the panelists called for more collaboration and coordination of effort, an “all-in” response that involves all sectors of society. Certainly the government, but also nonprofits and the philanthropic sector can lead the way in providing new types of programs and services tailored to the needs of returning service men and women and their families. Academic institutions can serve as conveners, thought leaders, and data collectors in support of veterans affairs. Big business can create new opportunities, and politicians at all levels can initiate policy changes that empower organizations working to meet the needs of returning vets. Finally, the panelists stressed, veterans are themselves a civic asset and a resource that can be leveraged in helping our communities respond to the unmet needs of returning military personnel. Our ability as a nation to take care of our veterans not only influences our future ability to maintain an effective volunteer force, the panelists said. It is, most importantly, our moral and ethical responsibility to honor and support those individuals who have served.