Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff

Founder-executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America explains why Americans need to understand the cost of war.



Tavis: Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is holding its second annual heroes celebration here in Los Angeles, in fact, tomorrow night. Paul, good to have you back on this program.
Paul Rieckhoff: Good to be here, Tavis, thanks for having me.
Tavis: Let me start with some of the unique challenges that veterans face when they come home, and we’ll move from there. In no particular order, I was stunned to read – and we all know the economy is challenging everybody, Black and Brown folk getting crushed by this economy, but I was shocked to look at what veterans face, those who have served their country on foreign soil, come back home. Their unemployment numbers are through the roof.
Rieckhoff: They are, that’s right. The numbers just came out a few weeks ago and they’re at about 14.7 percent for the month, and the annual average is about 10.7, so significantly higher than the national average.
Our folks are coming home to the toughest economy in decades and they’re having a hard time transitioning their military skills into the workforce, and a lot of employers just don’t recognize how good these folks can be to their businesses. They can be fantastic assets.
They’re dynamic, they’re good at using technology, they can obviously work well in teams, they function well under pressure, and we believe that they can be the next greatest generation, just like the World War II generation that came back from war and helped rebuild our economy.
We believe that the men and women who served after 9/11 can do the same thing, but we’ve got to invest in them. We need jobs programs, we need the government to get involved, we need the private sector to step up and create a better transitional and jobs program for these folks, and the future could be bright. But we really need action now to understand the urgency.
Tavis: Help me juxtapose what you’re saying now, with all due respect, with the commercials that we see convincing folk to join the military. The whole hook on the commercial is that if you join the military we’re going to teach you how to do this and how to do this and how to do this, and whether you stay with us for life or not, we’re preparing you for a better life.
So that’s the hook that’s used to pull them into the military. They come into the military, they get trained with all these skills that you’ve just laid out, they get out of the military, come back home from serving, and they can’t transfer those skills to the American workplace. What am I missing here?
Rieckhoff: We don’t spend enough time on bringing these folks out. We spend millions of dollars and lots of time getting them ready to go to war, and we really don’t spend much time and money on the back end, bringing them home. That means mental health services, that means family support, but it also means helping them transition into that civilian job force.
We had a guy in Washington who stood on Capitol Hill, he was a West Point graduate, was an Army Ranger, has an MBA, and is having a hard time – a guy named Joe Tryon (sp) who was a captain in the Army who’s having a hard time finding a job. He’s incredibly dynamic. He could be a great asset to a company.
We need to help him show that his skills are transferable into the corporate world, and we need corporate folks to step up. There are a lot of big businesses that need help during this tough time. You need folks who can function under stress and these are exactly the type of folks that we need to lead that area.
Tavis: If I am an employer, if I’m in H.R. and I’m watching this right now and the question I have is on the one hand you’re telling me they’re skilled and we ought to be able to make those skills transferable; on the other hand, I’m reading stories every day about the increase in the syndrome, the mental health issues that these officers often have when they come back.
I’m trying to square these two things. You want me to use these skills and hire these folk, and yet you’re telling me that they may snap in the workplace at some point.
Rieckhoff: I think those snapping fears are really exaggerated. They’re not Rambo. They’re not going to come home and shoot up your place of employment. They need transitional resources, and once they get them and once they get stabilized on their way home, they can be a fantastic asset.
We looked at folks like Fred Smith, who now heads Fed-Ex. He’s a Vietnam veteran, a Marine Corps veteran who brought those skills home and built one of the most important companies in our country.
So we see them in the same way. We obviously do need more support, and their families need more support, but these folks are already innovating. They’re creating green businesses, they’re organizing at local levels, they’re becoming teachers. Some of them even went down to Haiti and Chile to help in the reconstruction efforts. So they’re very entrepreneurial and I think that can be a huge asset to any business.
Tavis: The second issue I want to cover in terms of the challenges they face when they come home, and there are many, again, in no particular order, I didn’t realize that there was such a backlog on disability claims.
Rieckhoff: Yeah, it’s crazy. Right now there are a million claims backlogged at the VA. Now those are disability claims from all generations, not just Iraq and Afghanistan, and if you file a disability claim right now at the VA, the average wait time is 180 days. Folks have fought overseas in Fallujah and in Afghanistan. They shouldn’t have to come home and fight red tape.
But right now you’ve got an antiquated system that really hasn’t updated that much since Vietnam. It’s a paper-based system at the VA, so many folks are coming home to fight this bureaucracy, to fight the red tape, and that’s why it’s the number one legislative priority for us at IAVA this year. We need to get this done immediately. We need the whole country behind us to do it.
Tavis: With all that we use technology to do – I’m looking at you, I know you’re telling me the truth here, but I’m trying to, in my mind, square what you’ve just said with the reality. How is it that we still have a paper system at the VA in 2010?
Rieckhoff: It’s unbelievable. We asked the president the same thing, we asked Secretary Shinseki the same thing, and the bottom line is that we didn’t update the VA for the last three decades, really. We got caught flat-footed. That’s why they didn’t have enough mental health counselors, that’s why they didn’t have enough facilities in place, why the hospitals were outdated, and that’s why we had problems like Walter Reed, where really folks at the highest levels in Washington and at the VA weren’t planning proactively for almost two million men and women who were going to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s a huge number of people who are really going to test this system that hasn’t been forced to innovate in three decades, really.
Tavis: Before I jump to the other issue that I want to talk about in a moment about the challenges they face when they come home, since you mentioned Walter Reed, much has been written lately, of course, about the burgeoning costs of what it’s going to entail financially, getting Walter Reed closed down. That brand new, state-of-the-art facility opened up, there are billions of dollars, it seems, into overruns.
So that’s one story. How does that story, though, that we’re reading about impact veterans? How does it impact the men and women, the story about what’s going to happen to Walter Reed?
Rieckhoff: It causes a lot of fear and anxiety for them and their families, worried that if they come home and they’re wounded, god forbid, that the facilities aren’t going to be in place.
We all know about the catastrophe that was Walter Reed a few years back, and what we’ve seen now is that there are still major hurdles. Bethesda Naval Facility is going to be designed to transition – they’re going to shut down Walter Reed and move stuff over there.
Bottom line is Bethesda’s not ready. So they don’t have enough beds, they don’t have enough facilities, they haven’t made the innovations necessary in the buildings, and what that means for veterans coming home is their care is going to suffer. To the point about expense, it’s another place where folks in Washington underestimated the cost.
The cost of healthcare for the Department of Defense has skyrocketed. It’s an over 150 percent increase since 2001, but a lot of this is predictable. If you send a lot of folks to war, taking them home and getting them care is going to be expensive. We’ve all seen that in healthcare more broadly in this country, but I think it’s especially acute at the Department of Defense right now, where you’ve got families who are looking at their parents being gone for sometimes two, three, even four tours.
Tavis: While we’re on this, I’m asking your own personal opinion about this. Since you referenced bringing these veterans home, this started, of course, during the Bush administration, so it’s not to cast aspersion on the Obama people.
But President Bush, his administration would not allow us to see these bodies as they returned to Dover Air Force Base. So we’re not seeing the bodies of those men and women who have given their lives in service to this country as they return home.
Unless you watch a special here or there, you don’t even get a chance to see what condition the wounded soldiers are in when they come home. Was that a right decision or politically – a politically right decision or a politically bad decision?
Rieckhoff: I think Americans need to understand the costs and consequences of war. That has to do with the folks who were killed in action, and that’s also the folks who were wounded.
It’s a huge challenge for us as a veterans group just to bridge the gap, because so few people have someone in their family serving. Less than 1 percent of the American public served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In World War II, it was about 12 percent.
So we need the American public to be involved, to understand our issues, even when the economy’s bad, even when stuff’s going on with Goldman Sachs. We need them to understand these are your sons and daughters, and they’re coming home from war. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the war, if you voted for Obama or Bush or who.
We all have a moral obligation to take care of these folks coming home, and that’s the urgency we need beyond the White House. The White House can’t do it alone, and the VA can’t do it alone, DOD can’t do it alone. It’s largely going to be community-based nonprofits.
They’re the ones that are going to catch the overflow when the DOD or the VA can’t meet the need.
Tavis: To your point now about the small number, comparatively speaking, of American families who have a member of their family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, how does that translate into feelings about the vets? We know the polls indicate pretty clearly where people stand on the war, but in the work that you do, is it still – the view of the veterans, is it still determined in part by who you voted for, by your political philosophy, whether you’re in Hollywood or on Main Street?
How is that changing, if at all?
Rieckhoff: I think it’s changed. I think people understand that you can separate the war from the warriors; you can separate the people from the policy. We’ve turned the page on Vietnam in that respect. Everywhere I’ve gone in this country, no matter what the political background of the people, religious background, geographic background, they support me and they support the veteran of IAVA, and I think that’s tremendous progress for our country.
The feelings are there. We’ve just got to activate them. We’ve got to get them involved. We’ve got to get them to take the next step and donate money to a local nonprofit or to come and volunteer at a VA or help out a military family.
We need the community to really embrace these folks as a nation, and we haven’t gotten there yet. That’s why we need the president to show real leadership. When he’s talking about Afghanistan, also talk about what the average American can do here at home. We need them to understand there’s a continuation, there’s a lifecycle of a veteran that doesn’t end when they come home to the United States and step off that plane.
Tavis: The news is that the president is going to stick to his timetable to start bringing these soldiers home from Iraq this summer. We’ve been told that decision would be determined by conditions on the ground. Now we’re hearing we’re going to start the draw-down this summer. Good decision, bad decision? Good timing, bad timing?
Rieckhoff: I think it’s inevitable at this point. We couldn’t keep up this pace of operations, especially if we want to move folks into Afghanistan. You can’t do all these things at one time. I think it’s clear that the American folks want us out, the military wants us out, and we’re moving out.
Now, it’s not happening at the speed I think a lot of folks want, and we’ve got to be mindful of the fact that there’s still going to be significant forces on the ground. They’re still there now. A couple of years ago, when I came to sit with you, we were calling Afghanistan “Forgotistan.” Now we’re worried that folks aren’t going to pay attention to what’s happening in Iraq, and I think all Americans have an obligation to pay attention until that last man or woman comes home, whenever that is.
Tavis: Just got a few seconds left – speaking of man or woman, startling for me at how the system is not designed to treat women, and we see an increasing number of women come home as vets who end up homeless because the system just isn’t designed to take care of women – as if we’re taking care of men, for that matter.
Rieckhoff: Yeah, it’s another area where our country’s been caught flat-footed. Fifteen percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are women, and the VA hasn’t been prepared to handle them, they haven’t been prepared to handle with motherhood issues, female health issues. There were VA hospitals without women’s bathrooms. So we’ve really got to understand women are on the front line every day. They’re getting wounded, they’re getting killed and they’re serving incredibly honorably in very tough situations, and we owe them the best possible care when they get home.
Tavis: Paul Rieckhoff, good to have you on. Thanks for your work.
Rieckhoff: My pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Have a very successful event here in Los Angeles.
Rieckhoff: Thank you very much.

Tavis: My pleasure.

Last modified: May 3, 2014 at 2:21 pm