Skip to main content

What we must give back to soldiers

By Paul Rieckhoff, Special to CNN
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
Members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment -- also known as the "Old Guard" -- plant flags at tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on Thursday, May 23, ahead of Memorial Day. Washington is a city of war memorials. Members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment -- also known as the "Old Guard" -- plant flags at tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on Thursday, May 23, ahead of Memorial Day. Washington is a city of war memorials.
HIDE CAPTION
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
A city of war memorials
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Rieckhoff: Memorial Day most difficult, hallowed day for veterans and their loved ones
  • They serve their country, yet 900,000 veterans have disability claims pending with the VA
  • He says lawmakers, president taking needed action on big jump in sexual assault in ranks
  • Rieckhoff: High rate of suicide among veterans requires urgent increase in prevention efforts

Editor's note: Paul Rieckhoff is an Iraq veteran, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of "Chasing Ghosts." Follow him on Twitter @PaulRieckhoff.

(CNN) -- To some, Memorial Day marks the start of summer.

But to veterans and their families, Memorial Day is one of the most difficult and hallowed days of the year. A time to reflect on our fallen heroes and to think of survivors of wars gone by.

Lost, injured or home safe and sound, our military and veterans communities are facing grave challenges that deserve national attention. Yet, as this Memorial Day approaches, stories about Benghazi, the IRS, and the Department of Justice's seizing the phone records of AP and Fox reporters are taking up almost all of the focus in Washington.

Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff

After the Memorial Day observances conclude and before Washington returns to business as usual, we need to ensure we are doing right by those who have served to protect our nation.

On Memorial Day, nearly 900,000 veterans have disability claims pending with the Department of Veteran Affairs, including almost 600,000 veterans who have been waiting for more than 125 days for a response. Those figures represent a more than 613% increase since President Obama's first inauguration in 2009, when 85,000 veterans were in the backlog for more than 125 days.

VA benefits were put in place to support service-disabled veterans who, as a result of their injuries, need health care and financial support. But our men and women returning home now aren't getting that support. They're asking for help, but so many are not getting it.

There's been some recent movement in the right direction. Since March, the VA has decreased the backlog by 3.2 percent, according to the IAVA's analysis of Veterans Benefits Affairs reporting. That the backlog has been reduced for six consecutive weeks is a positive development and reflects the VA's new urgency to fix the backlog problem with new initiatives. Yet, to eliminate the backlog by its public goal of 2015, the VA must do far better.

Veterans need the aggressive leadership and decisive action of Obama, who has been silent on the backlog, to bring the backlog down to zero. This is something that 67 senators and a bipartisan group in the House are calling for, along with more than a dozen veterans service organizations.

Actor Gary Sinise pushes veterans issues
President Obama honors wounded heroes

The president rightfully displayed prompt leadership in responding to another critical issue for service members: military sexual trauma. A Pentagon report released in early May revealed that an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred last year, a one third increase over the previous year.

Additionally, during this past month, three officers responsible for leading sexual assault prevention efforts have been embroiled in sexual misconduct cases themselves.

News interactive: 100 faces, 100 hours -- Remembering the fallen

These incidents have served as a wake-up call for all Americans. We can't ask our fellow citizens to put their lives at risk for us if they're not safe themselves. A group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, is proposing new legislation to combat this problem. The Military Justice Improvement Act would remove oversight of sexual assault cases from the chain of command and allow victims to report their assaults to an independent prosecutor.

This is an important piece of legislation that is quickly gaining bipartisan support and should be implemented immediately. It's sensible and can help change the military's culture for the better.

This Memorial Day, we also must continue our work to prevent suicides among those who served. The numbers are sobering: according to Army reporting, 109 active-duty and reserve servicemen and women have taken their own lives this year. Among all veterans, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That's 22 veterans. Every day.

Despite what we know about veterans' suicides, a recent report from the VA inspector general's office found that about a third of veterans considered to be at high risk for suicide don't receive the recommended follow-up care after they've been discharged from VA inpatient mental health care. That is unacceptable.

We must continue to push for an expansion of programs that connect veterans to mental health resources while also fighting to erase the stigma that prevents many veterans from seeking mental health care in the first place. Ensuring that our service members are thoroughly evaluated and properly diagnosed is crucial to ensuring that they'll be able to cope with, and overcome, the physical and mental injuries they may have sustained while serving our country.

We need the country to get behind us if we're going to take care of these men and women who have taken such good care of our country. The president's leadership is essential, but he needs a battalion to lead.

#GoSilent with veterans this Memorial Day and ask a friend to do the same. Hold hands with your family at 12:01 p.m. ET and teach your kids why you're doing it. Thank the next person you see in uniform. And when Memorial Day is over, join our effort to ensure that our elected officials stand with us and take meaningful steps to support veterans and their families.

Honor our men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice by doing right by their brothers and sisters among us.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Rieckhoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT