State of the Union: How the Vets Scored It

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The Joint Chiefs look on as President Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Jan. 24.

When President Obama took to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address, Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was in the gallery. While he enjoyed the pageantry of the evening, Rieckhoff was there on a more serious mission. This was the first State of the Union in eight years where American troops were not on the ground in Iraq. Thousands of veterans have come home from that war, and are returning from Afghanistan, to high unemployment and the realization that even after a decade of war, most Americans have no idea what they’ve been through.

Before the speech, Rieckhoff wrote that it was an enormous opportunity for the President lead on veterans’ issues. Rieckhoff spoke with TIME the day after the speech about what he heard, and the challenges veterans will continue to face in the coming years.

In your blog post before the State of the Union, you said the speech was a defining moment for the President to rally the country’s support for veterans. Bottom line up front–how’d he do?

He did well and he did it in a way that we probably hadn’t anticipated. What he did was really craft a narrative of this new greatest generation. Using us as a model for the rest of the country is a really powerful message. It’s something that everybody can understand and agree with, but especially highlighting the unique values of the military at a time when Washington really seems to be lacking in values and lacking in effectiveness. I think the important part is he extended it beyond the military and veterans community. Often we get isolated as kind of another special interest group. Last night, he really held us up as a model for our country. That’s very powerful.

Before the speech, you wrote that you hoped the President would focus on suicides, but he didn’t even mention it. What do we need to see from the President and Congress that issue?

On suicides, we need some real action. You don’t hear much about suicides out of Washington except when there’s a suicide on active duty or once a month when General [Peter] Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, releases the Army numbers. We know there’s a suicide epidemic that nobody can even quantify. It starts with Congress working with us and others to find a way to count the number of suicides. Whether that’s through the CDC or another kind of tracking registry, we need to know at least a ballpark how many veterans are killing themselves once they leave the active duty and the reserves. We don’t know that right now. That along with anti-stigma campaigns, increased flexibility of services, a focus on technology as a form of outreach, that’s really what we want to see around suicide, specifically.

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General Chiarelli released the suicides reports and there were 278 last year. That’s only Army and that’s only the folks who are still in the service. That’s just a canary in a coalmine for a much larger problem. We know anecdotally from our membership that we’re seeing suicides at a much faster rate. Before we can fix the problem, we have to define the problem and nobody’s done that yet.

The President did talk a lot about jobs and veteran unemployment, which was one of the things you wanted to hear about.

The jobs component is a top priority. We see close to 20% unemployment in our membership. We want to continue to push the message that if you want to support the troops, give them a job. We need Washington to create an environment that makes it easier to higher veterans: increase financial incentives; help small businesses who lose people to a deployment for a year to a year and a half; strengthen USERA [Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act] laws so it’s harder to fire someone when they’re deployed.

In the specifics, obviously we would love to hear more about this new Vet Jobs Corps. If you think about it like AmeriCorps of the Peace Corps, that type of a movement, it can be a powerful thing. We know that the veterans want to get involved in their community. They want to give back and they want to get training to become leaders when they come home. It’s a tremendous pool of resources just waiting to be tapped. If we can assign somebody who’s high profile to run a veterans jobs corps and properly resource it, it can be a powerful thing and a good return on the investment for the taxpayer. If you invest in a young paratrooper coming back, give him a little bit of training, they’re going to pay their community back and pay our country back in a big way. And I think it’s important that we have a big idea. The idea of a veterans job corps is a big idea and it can also help people think about us as the cavalry, not as a problem.

You’ve said before that veterans are more than just problems to be solved.

That’s how we have to look at it, especially at the local government level. We talk to a lot of mayors and governors and a lot of mayors don’t really deal with veterans until there’s a problem with a homeless veteran or some kind of violent incident happens. We want to get ahead of the curve and look at them as teachers and community leaders, not someone who’s going to be homeless or going to be in jail. That’s all about doubling down on our investment right now and in the next couple of years. This is a closing window. America’s not going to be focused on veterans in the same way five years from now. We know we have to hit it hard the next few years while we have the nation’s attention and the support of the American people to set ourselves up for success for the next 30 years.

The President also didn’t mention the GI Bill, which is something on the minds of many veterans.

The G.I. Bill wasn’t mentioned at all, and we still need to make it more streamlined and easier to use. Only about 25% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have used this benefit. A very basic thing we need to do is advertise it more. It’s a great benefit. We need to let everybody know about it and help them take advantage of it.

And it’s part of this concept of linking us to the World War II generation. Everybody knows the GI Bill was really successful. It helped build this greatest generation that went on to become a group of leaders in our economy. Oftentimes people don’t necessarily link this greatest generation to their grandfathers. That’s a powerful linkage.

What is your immediate focus for the coming year, your 50-meter target if you will?

Going into 2012 it’s going to be suicides, unemployment and it’s also going to be women’s issues. We have a national conversation now about veterans unemployment but most people aren’t thinking about or talking about suicides. Women veterans are very much underserved by our current systems and also represent tremendous potential. As a new veterans organization, it’s especially important for us to highlight the needs and opportunities for women veterans to have.

One thing we’ve been pushing a lot is non governmental solutions. One example is our G.I. Bill program, It’s a place where any veteran who wants to use the G.I. Bill can get all of their questions answered and get some basic information about how to use it. We’ve had over 750,000 veterans use that program and we built it for less than $100,000. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, and we, as a veterans organization, really understand some of these issues better than anybody. We’re looking for private partnerships, non-profit partnership,s that can complement or augment what’s happening in Washington. The VA is not the only solution to these problems, and we have to get people thinking outside the box a little bit more.

Our reinforcements and our support could just as well come from Silicon Valley as it could form Capitol Hill. A lot of what we’re dealing with are business challenges, and leveraging technology and innovation can help us just as much as trying to deal with the VA budget, or the backlog of claims. We’re going to really encourage people, especially in a year where not a lot of folks think much is going to get done in Washington, to think outside this town for ways to support our community.