Coming home to another battle

Iraq war veteran Phil Aliff describes the grim economic circumstances that U.S. soldiers face back at home when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

An unemployed veteran asks for money from motorists in Los Angeles (Mark Ralston | AFP)An unemployed veteran asks for money from motorists in Los Angeles (Mark Ralston | AFP)

DURING THE early morning hours of March 13, President Barack Obama's war strategy for Afghanistan was officially implemented, with waves of U.S. Marines assaulting the southern Afghan village of Marja.

Though initially lauded as a success by the administration, the cost of Obama's strategy has been dear. During the first three months of 2010, 83 service members died in combat--twice the number who perished in the first three months of 2009. The high body count is also a sign of things to come as U.S. soldiers begin a series of offensives that are supposed to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan's southern frontier.

But when U.S. service members leave behind the intense fighting overseas, they come home to face another war.

This week, as Obama was visiting Afghanistan to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, derisively known by most Afghans as the "mayor of Kabul," shocking statistics were released regarding unemployment for veterans. According to the Labor Department, the jobless rate for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 rose to 21.4 percent, up from 14 percent in 2008 and significantly higher than the 16.6 percent unemployment rate for civilians in the same age range.

Employers are legally obligated to provide job security for members of the National Guard and Reserves, holding their jobs until they return from overseas. But with these soldiers increasingly facing repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, employers are simply deciding not to hire them at all--turning them down even if they have the appropriate skills out of fear that they won't unable to replace a deployed employee.

Veterans' groups say the high unemployment figures are also due to the fact that the young people who join the military lack job training, job experience and education.

Of course, these are precisely the reasons that recruiters tell young people that joining the military will benefit them--that it will give them a leg up when it comes to finding a job when they return to civilian life.

The military has never provided the kind of job training that employers are really looking for. That's all the more so today as more and more people flock to recruiting stations in the hopes of a source of income that will meet basic living standards, or perhaps help them pay for an increasingly expensive education now that state budget cuts have slashed education funding and raised tuition.

As far as the Defense Department is concerned, however, diminished job prospects for young people aren't a problem. They're an opportunity, providing the military with a gigantic pool of potential recruits just desperate to risk losing their lives in exchange for that elusive "job training."

As former Under Secretary of Defense David Chu put it, "What difficult economic times give us, I think, is an opening to make our case to people we might not otherwise have, and if we make our case, I think we can be successful."

It isn't just recruitment numbers that are up for the Pentagon. So are retention rates. Reenlistment rose 14 percent in 2009, with service members facing rising unemployment and a lower standard of living once out of the military.

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FOR MANY veterans coming home from war, there are few options available to restart a life that, in many cases, has been shattered by the physical and mental wounds of warfare. According to Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki, disability claims backlogged because of bureaucracy will rise tenfold by 2015 to about 2.6 million if there isn't a significant overhaul in the claims process.

Those with service-connected claims already have a waiting time of approximately five months before their claim is processed, and that would grow significantly as the Great Recession continues to unfold.

But with bailouts for the rich being prioritized over social spending and an end to two unpopular wars, the message to veterans from the Obama administration is clear: Once you come home, the billionaires are more important than you.

Veterans aren't the only ones facing this economic warfare, though perhaps they are among the most severely affected. By his actions, Obama has made it clear that the economic recovery will come on the backs of working people.

And it seems that the best way to fix this crisis for veterans isn't even on the president's desk. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and diverting the resources used for occupation toward social spending would be the most obvious first step.

In contrast to the claim that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are in the interests of all Americans, the truth is that they are actually barriers to developing a higher standard of living in this country, especially for veterans.

This is most clear when you compare the funding for the wars to spending on veteran services at home.

According to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, the government will spend $55.9 billion on the VA in 2010. While this is an 11 percent increase in funding, it is far short of the $155 billion expected to be spent on the occupations in fiscal year 2011. This is striking when considering how that money could be used if it were diverted toward workers' and veterans' needs.

The VA budget also includes funding for the post-9/11 GI Bill, which encountered bureaucratic snafus that delayed its implementation for months last fall, forcing thousands of veterans to go without money for books and other necessities while the VA scrambled to process all of the claims.

Instead of funding endless occupation and bailouts for billionaires, Obama should be listening to the American public when considering how to spend our tax money. Take, for instance, a March 26 CNN poll that showed 49 percent of Americans opposing the war in Afghanistan. As casualties continue to mount during what is certain to be the bloodiest year of the war, that opposition will grow.

We need to demand that the money being spent on war be used to fund a better VA, education here at home and jobs programs. This would offer concrete alternatives to young people who join the military not as enthusiastic "volunteers," but as a consequence of the economic draft--forced to sign away their best years to the military in a gamble to get an education.

It's time that veterans and civilians join together to demand that the Obama administration spend our money on jobs and education, not war and occupation.