Veterans' needs are shifting along with the changing demographics of this nation and state.
Florida is home to the nation’s third-largest population of military veterans — more than 1.5 million,with 11,725 in Flagler County as of 2015, and 55,270 in Volusia County. It’s a group both vast and diverse: The largest group by far are the Vietnam War veterans, but 177,000 entered the service after Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 10 percent of Florida’s veterans are women. Collectively, veterans have a direct economic impact on Florida’s economy of $17.9 billion annually.
They are united in one more thing: They are all owed the thanks of a grateful nation. Whether they were drafted or volunteered, each one knew, upon enlistment, that at some point they might be required to lay down their lives in service to their county. Honoring that commitment is a sacred trust, and Florida should not let them down.
That means making sure that veterans in Florida have the support to which they are entitled — and realizing that veterans’ needs are shifting along with the changing demographics of this nation and state.
One of the biggest tasks is making sure that veterans are able to access services that meet their needs. Claiming federal benefits is a big part of the picture: The 2017 annual report of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs reflects that state and county officials have helped veterans access $6.3 billion in compensation and pension benefits, $5 billion in medical benefits, nearly $5.8 million in payments to retirees and beneficiaries and more than $1.2 billion in other payments such as training and insurance.
But there are warning signs of unmet need. As Florida’s half-a-million-plus Vietnam-era veterans age, many services are becoming overloaded and inefficient, and a series of scandals at U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs offices around the country put a spotlight on inexcusably long wait times and deceptive attempts to disguise system-wide failures. Many believe things are getting better, but that’s only part of the story: While it struggles to serve that vast Vietnam-era population — for example, responding to the growing need for long-term care that’s only partly met by state and federal veterans’ nursing homes — the system is underserving younger veterans who need better access to programs like job training, support for veterans raising children and those who need more access to mental health care.
That last issue may be the biggest. Starting with the Vietnam War era, the prevalence of significant service-related mental-health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and behavioral issues associated with traumatic brain injury, has increased — even as the percentage of American veterans who actually serve in combat has decreased. Expanding research into causes and treatments of PTSD, and making sure resources are targeted where they can do the most good, makes sense. Meanwhile, state and federal officials should acknowledge that, as battlefield injuries become more traumatic but more survivable due to better medical care, there will be a growing number of veterans who will spend the rest of their lives coping with significant physical and mental disabilities.
These are veterans who have sacrificed as much as they possibly can and survived. Their suffering demands a response.
Florida officials are also looking at another priority — finding ways to capitalize on those returning veterans who are ready to take up civilian life. Over the past three years, Florida’s relatively small investment in two programs that encourage entrepreneurship and business-related education among returning veterans is producing results, providing Florida business with a growing supply of talented, hard-working employees and encouraging veteran-owned businesses to flourish.
With time, these priorities may sift. But one thing remains constant: Our commitment to them, and honor for their sacrifice, should not be limited to one day a year.