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Majority of veterans say they would join military again, despite scars of war

March 31, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
According to a new survey, 89 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans say they would join the military again, while also reporting a spike in suicide, reduced physical wellness and feelings of disconnection. Gwen Ifill talks to two veterans, Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Nathan Smith of Hire Heroes USA, as well as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post.
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GWEN IFILL: Many of the 2.5 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have served multiple deployments, survived injury that would have killed them in earlier conflicts, and now cope with unprecedented mental and physical challenges.

A new survey commissioned by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation paints a conflicted picture; 51 percent of the veterans surveyed personally know someone who attempted or committed suicide; 55 percent said they sometimes or often feel disconnected from civilian life, yet 89 percent said they would choose to join the military again.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post joins us with more details.  And we also hear from two veterans, Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Nathan Smith, chief operating officer of Hire Heroes USA.

Rajiv, what was the most surprising number you found in this survey?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, The Washington Post: It was a combination of numbers.

This group of 2.6 million Americans, we know of their service, we know of their sacrifice, but we really don’t know how well they’re adjusting back to civilian life. On the one hand, I was struck by the fact that 43 percent of them said their physical health today is worse than before they deployed. A third said their mental or emotional health is worse. That figure you just put on the screen, 55 percent said they feel disconnected from civilian life.

This is a group of people who have been battered. They’re having a tough time with transition. They’re having their frustration with the services they’re getting from the government. Yet, knowing all that, almost 90 percent say they feel proud of what they did out in the wars, and almost 90 percent say, knowing everything they knew now, Gwen, all the danger, the separation from family, that they would do it all over again.

GWEN IFILL: How do you rate the job the government is doing for them right now taking care of them?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Not so well. About 60 percent say that the Veterans Administration is not doing enough, is doing either a poor job or only a fair job in meeting the needs of this generation of veterans.

About 50 percent of them say the Pentagon isn’t doing enough to help ease the transition from military life to civilian life. Yet, when asked how they themselves are doing, 80-plus percent say their own needs are being met. Now, we were very careful when we asked that question, Gwen.

We didn’t say, is the government meeting your needs? We asked them about their needs in general. Part of the interpretation of is that their needs are being met by not just government agencies, but by nonprofits, by faith-based groups, by other communities groups.

America has stepped up to try to help these people, and we are seeing that, in individual cases, they’re saying, yes, I’m getting the help I need. But when they look out as a whole, they’re concerned.

GWEN IFILL: I’m very curious about something you touched on, which is a number who said that they’re not disillusioned at all by their service and would do it again.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: I think it speaks, Gwen, to the strength of the all-volunteer military. This wasn’t a draft army. Almost all of the folks who went to fight in Iraq and in Afghanistan did — signed up voluntarily.

GWEN IFILL: So, 53 percent we have on the screen say it was worth fighting.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: In Afghanistan, yes, smaller numbers for Iraq. And when you say — you ask them, were both wars worth fighting, only 35 percent say that, higher than the public as a whole, but — so, then how do you reconcile that with 90 percent say they feel proud of what they did, almost 90 percent say they would do it all over again?

It speaks to the fact that a lot of these folks, when they went out there, they went out there because this was their job, they saw it as their mission, their service, and they feel that in their own discrete areas where they were deployed, they made a difference.

GWEN IFILL: Tom Tarantino, let me bring you into this. How different is this reaction from veterans of past wars?

TOM TARANTINO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: Well, I think you see the general reaction from veterans, from former service members that they are proud of their service and that what you did in combat is important to you.

I mean, this definitely is the reaction that I get not just from our members at IAVA, but myself. I’m not a politician. I’m not historian. They can judge the overall importance of the Iraq war. For us, we are proud of our service and what we did. And I can say that in my little part of Iraq that I was in was better when I left it than when I got there. And that’s why I’m proud and my soldiers are proud of what we did.

GWEN IFILL: Nathan Smith, when you look at reports like this, does it make you feel that this is — that you’re finally telling the truth about experiences of service members in a war like this, or do you feel in some ways it’s giving service members a bad rap?

NATHAN SMITH, Hire Heroes USA: Well, I think it does both.

I think the statistics are certainly true. They mesh with what I experienced personally as a Marine infantry officer in two tours in Iraq, what I have seen subsequently, professionally, as chief operating officer at Hire Heroes USA. One of the challenges here is that we find these articles or these news stories can sometimes portray veterans in a negative light.

Again, the statistics are balanced, they’re accurate, but when you interview veterans and spotlight some of the challenges that they’re having, people who are unfamiliar with the veteran population may conclude that all veterans or most veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or significant difficulties finding a job.

And that widens the schism between the all-volunteer force and the majority of the public that hasn’t served.

GWEN IFILL: So, Tom Tarantino, what responsibility is it of society and of government help these people who have given so much assimilate better?

TOM TARANTINO: Well, it’s absolutely the responsibility.

When we sign up to go to war, part of the deal is that the government is going to have our back when we get home. One of the things that I want to point out is that I think it’s really important that we actually tell these stories. I think it’s important that we bring these — this data out to light, because not only does it help give the American public which doesn’t have a connection to the military an accurate view of what’s going on.

It also lets them know about our successes. One of the things that this poll shows, that is mirrored by IAVA’s own survey, is that the majority of veterans don’t have post-traumatic stress and that it gives us an opportunity to help the American people form an accurate opinion of what the military community is like, as well as highlight our successes.

GWEN IFILL: Nathan Smith, I want to ask you one more thing, also, which is do you think that the government is doing enough?

When we look at the numbers, the Veterans Administration has seen its budget increase, yet people are very negative about the Veterans Administration, veterans, that is, many veterans — I shouldn’t say all. So what is not being done?

NATHAN SMITH: Sure.

I think the resources are there, and it’s been very encouraging over the past several years to see a dramatic increase in what government is doing. I think where the solution lies now is to allocate these scarce resources to where they’re best used. What are the best-in-class organizations? Who’s out there doing the work, whether it’s public, private or government? You know, who’s doing the best work out there and how do we direct those resources to the programs that are already in place, rather than creating new ones or continuing to fund even sometimes government programs that may not be as effective as other ones that are out there?

GWEN IFILL: Rajiv, going back to the report again, a year ago, the Department of Defense and the VA commissioned the Institutes of Medicine to come out with very similar findings. Is there any evidence that this is being tackled?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it is on multiple levels.

You have more research being done sponsored by the Pentagon and by the VA. You have new programs that are being put into place by the Department of Veterans Affairs. You have a very generous post-9/11 G.I. Bill that is sending many of these veterans off to college so they can compete in the work force.

The military is putting in place new initiatives to ease the transition, particularly as the overall force draws down because of budget cuts. But, you know, the discussion we’re having here I think is essential, and it’s one that speaks to the real challenge facing our senior-most policy-makers and our defense leaders, because, on one hand, we as a nation have a sacred obligation to those who have served to care for them.

And one needs to highlight the needs so that the appropriate resources can be made available in Washington and get down to those people. So you have to be truthful in the damage and in the scars that have been created by 12 years of war.

GWEN IFILL: Even if it makes it harder for veterans to get a job?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, this is the fine — this is the fine line, because, at the same time, this is not a broken group of people. A third are suffering from PTSD, but two-thirds aren’t.

And so it’s a very difficult message. And this is one that when I spoke to senior military commanders, senior officials at the VA, this is an issue they struggle with every day, to talk about this group of people as a group who has some needs, but a group that can also and is also being fundamentally productive members of American society, and plowing their leadership and the other skills they learned on the battlefield into the American economy and American society writ large.

GWEN IFILL: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, quite an amazing spread on the Washington Post Web site. I would recommend taking a look at it. Tom Tarantino of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Nathan Smith of Hire Heroes USA, thank you, all.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Thanks, Gwen.

TOM TARANTINO: Thank you.

NATHAN SMITH: Thank you.