Editor’s Note: Jeremy Butler is the incoming CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served on active duty in the US Navy as a surface warfare officer and deployed on the USS Gary (FFG-51) as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Many Americans will be listening closely to what President Trump says about the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in this year’s State of the Union address. He already previewed a potential new strategy on Sunday when he stated he was interested in shifting troops from Syria to Iraq, in part to make sure ISIS doesn’t rebound in Syria.
When we debate these issues, at the forefront of all our minds should be the voices of our veterans. I am the incoming CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, known as IAVA. I’m not a politician. I’m a sailor.
I joined the Navy in 1999 and deployed to the Persian Gulf in early 2003. While most of the country was embroiled in a necessary debate about the merits of military action, those of us in the military were focused on ensuring we were prepared for the fight ahead. It’s hard to prepare for a fight if you’re conflicted on whether it is the right course of action.
At that time, and now, I questioned why we were there. Sometimes it was easy to feel good about our mission. Sometimes, it was not, especially when confronted with the realities of combat – knowing that some who were sent over were never coming home – or if they did come home, they’d never be the same.
Veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be focused on what the President says. And in my new leadership role at IAVA, based on my personal experience and the hard work of our organization, I have particular insight into what they care about.
Last week, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America released its annual survey – a powerful tool for insight into the views of the post-9/11 generation of veterans and what they think about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like me, they have mixed feelings: For Iraq, 43% of IAVA members polled said it was “not worth it” or “somewhat not worth it,” while 47% thought it was “worth it” or “somewhat worth it”; for Afghanistan, that breakdown was 28% negative and 62% positive.
Sixteen years after I deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as I watch the State of the Union, I want to know more about our strategy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. I will also be looking to see if our commander in chief and our country’s leaders have been listening to our veterans – and waiting to hear if they’re really committed to supporting us now that 3 million of us are back home.
What does it mean for these conflicts to be worth it? It means not only that the country as a whole is better off, but also that the individuals who did the fighting, and the families who supported them, believe their sacrifices were worthwhile. And their sacrifices have been immense. Eighty-four percent of the 4,600 respondents to our survey stated that veterans are not getting the care they need for mental health injuries – and 55% reported having such an injury. While 94% of IAVA member respondents reported being in excellent or good health before joining the military, only 35% believe they still are.
Financially, many post-9/11 veterans are doing well, but there are far too many who are still struggling. Thirty-four percent said that in a typical month, it is difficult to cover expenses and pay all their bills, and 35% suspected or were sure they experienced predatory loan practices. These numbers are unacceptable – veterans should be confident they can meet their financial obligations and not be preyed upon by companies who purport to serve them.
Our membership is humble; they are not looking for accolades or symbolic tributes. Only 27% of members support the President’s proposal for a military parade and 57% oppose it. Post-9/11 veterans are merely seeking what all Americans want: good health and stable lives.
Our leaders in Washington should look at this survey, and understand the needs of this “Next Greatest Generation.” While 68% of our respondents believe the American public supports veterans, only 19% believe the American public understands their sacrifices. Regardless of your opinion on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this cohort and generation deserves the attention and meaningful support of the United States as a whole.
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IAVA is a nonpartisan organization devoted to connecting, uniting and empowering the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I understand our members’ mixed feelings about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure, however, that the costs of these conflicts should not be enduring for the individual men and women who have already sacrificed so much.
We must do what we can as a society to ensure that these costs – mental, physical and financial – are borne fairly by the United States as a whole, and that we minimize lasting repercussions for this small but important minority. This week, I challenge all Americans to listen to our leaders and hold them accountable to take care of those who have fought for us. Did they hear our veterans’ voices?