Veterans Day 2013 Marks the End and a Beginning

Veterans offer advice, even to protesters, on how to talk to them on final wartime holiday.

U.S. Army Pfc. Jordan Adams provides security from a hilltop during a meeting with Afghan national police in Bagram in Afghanistan's Parwan province, Sept. 7, 2013.

A harrowing quotation from President Lincoln is emblazoned on the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building, across H Street from the White House in Washington, D.C.

"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

It's part of a longer speech the president gave at the end of the Civil War in 1865, a period the VA describes as a "time of great uneasiness." A month later the war would end, and Lincoln himself was assassinated shortly after.

On Veterans Day 2013, the U.S. finds itself at a similar crossroads. This is the last such holiday Americans will likely observe during war for the first time in more than 12 years. By November 2014, the government and its military might plans to be in the final throes of withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan -- perhaps all troops -- thus ending America's longest war in history. President Obama, facing unprecedented public outcry over hawkish policies worldwide, will have fulfilled his campaign promise of ending protracted wars in the Middle East.

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For many veterans who spoke with U.S. News, it's a time of great reflection and thoughtfulness both for the circumstances that brought the military to this point, and the herculean task that remains before it.

Three-quarters of a million veterans remain in the VA backlog, still waiting to receive a ruling on whether they will receive federal assistance for having put at risk their lives and all that comes with it. Of these, more than 421,000 --almost 60 percent -- have been waiting for more than four months.

These numbers have improved under the leadership of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. He told Congress in early October that now fewer than 1 percent have been waiting for more than two years. Roughly 20 percent remain who have been waiting for more than one year. The size of both groups is shrinking.

"By and large, our patient population is older, sicker and in need of our support," Shinseki said of the 5 million beneficiaries. "For a large portion of them, our compensation or beneficiary checks are crucial to their ability to have order in their lives."

One veteran described in detail the sense of helplessness that accompanies having to apply for government benefits as a result of physical, emotional or psychological injury, only to be among the thousands who are denied.

"Filing a claim is an act of courage," says Anu Bhagwati, a Marine Corps veteran from 1999 to 2004 who now serves as executive director of veterans advocacy group the Service Women's Action Network. That process is not a "one-time" deal, she says.

Negotiating the process can take days, weeks or sometimes months depending on what kind of claim a veteran is filing, from physical injury treatments to compensation for sexual abuse while in uniform. It then takes further weeks, months and at times years to receive a decision from the government.

"It's the less sexy side of talking about military service," she says. "We cannot let VA off the hook."

SWAN fears public empathy will all but dissolve as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, bringing to a close what many talking heads quickly dub a period of "war weariness." It is also a time, however, in which roughly half of 1 percent of all Americans have served in uniform.

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"Americans have a very short-term memory. It's going to be a challenge to remind them to care," Bhagwati says.

Joe Davis, public affairs director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, offers "a plea for America to never forget the men and women who serve in uniform, and their families, not only on Veterans day but every day of the year."

"The first priority of the Federal Government is to protect and defend its citizens, and just because Afghanistan may be winding down doesn't mean the rest of the world suddenly becomes less dangerous or any more predictable," he says in an email. "It is expensive to maintain an all-volunteer force, and equally expensive to care for our wounded, ill and injured. Simply put, if the nation cannot afford to take care of its military or disabled veterans, then the nation should quit creating us."