By Jim Knotts, CEO of Operation Homefront
By December, defense officials estimate the number of U.S. troops left in Iraq, if any at all, will amount to less than 5,000. At the height of the war, in 2006 and 2007, the U.S. had between 130,000 to 172,000 men and women fighting there.
By summer 2012, the total number of deployed troops in the Mideast will drop from 150,000 to 70,000.
Cue the ticker tape parades and kissing couples in Times Square, right?
After almost ten years of fighting, America’s soldiers, and their families, are exhausted. The military’s expansive manpower needs have meant that active duty as well as Reserve and National Guard forces have served overseas, often, more than once.
An astonishing 2.3 million servicemembers have deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. Roughly 1 million of those people have deployed twice, three and even four times.
As the battles waged, there was a groundswell of support for the soldiers and their families from local communities. Nonprofits were formed overnight to provide everything from baby showers for Army wives left home alone to summer camps for teenage military kids.
The military too increased its efforts to support families. New programs were created and individuals were hired specifically to organize family support groups within individual units. Money, millions of dollars worth, was spent to help stabilize these families during very rough times.
Now, the troops are headed home. It would be easy for outsiders, especially those who have never endured a wartime deployment, to believe that all is happy and good for those families.
Unfortunately that may not be the case.
During those years of war, many military children grew up seeing their servicemember parent for only a few months each year. Thousands of other children had a parent killed in action. Thousands more now live with a parent who is severely disabled due to their wartime injuries.
Mental health experts are still grappling with the long-term effects of deployment on military children. From 2003 to 2008 the number of outpatient mental health visits for children of active duty parents doubled from one million to two million. During the same time period, the number of days military children spent in psychiatric care centers increased as well.
Reports of child abuse, domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse among troops also grew with each passing year. Military couples continue to post increasing divorce rates as the strain of repeated deployments grows heavier.
The war may almost be over, but the battle at home has just begun.
America’s warriors are now facing an uncertain future. Their bodies are broken. Their families have suffered. By year’s end, their jobs may be gone as well.
Federal budget cuts have already lopped $465 billion from the defense budget.
Additional cuts, which members of the House Armed Services Committee estimate could be as much as $500 billion, would mean 200,000 Marines and soldiers would lose their jobs.
In an economy already struggling to employ every American searching for a job, these men and women may have an even tougher search. The current unemployment rate for young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is 22 percent. For veterans combined, young and old, it’s 11 percent. Compare this to the national rate of 9 percent.
Wounded veterans face an unemployment rate of 41 percent.
Ships would not be built. Fighters would not fly. Troops would be asked to perform more missions with less people and more time away from home.
In military homes, the cuts could cause significant hardships as well. Lawmakers opposing the budget slashes suggest that military families living overseas could be asked to pay tuition for their children to attend on-post schools, as much as $2,850 per child.
Commissary savings would be reduced if not decimated completely. Spouses would receive less tuition assistance. Over $300 million in morale, welfare and recreation programs at bases around the world will disappear.
The changes ahead for our nation and its military leave Operation Homefront left to consider how our mission will change as well.
Historically, our role has been to assist the families of deployed service members. As those missions come to a close, we must re-evaluate the needs of these families now and how we can best serve them.
Part of this decision means evaluating not just our resources, but those of the nation.
As communities see more of their warriors returning, and staying home, will they lose their drive to rally around military families? It is easy to assume that military homecomings mean a happy ending. As the statistics above suggest, that is not always the case.
As budgets are slashed, and on-base resources are eliminated, will military families increasingly begin searching for help off base? Will those resources be gone as well?
After almost ten years of great personal sacrifice, America’s warriors, and their families, are being asked to give even more.
Americans everywhere need to consider not just the cost of the military in dollars. They need to weigh the years of hardship, separation and dedication given by the families who served and how sweeping budget cuts will leave many of them not just jobless but broken and destitute.
The war may almost be over but the fight has just begun. Continue to step up America. Your defenders need you now, possibly more than ever.
(Photo, left to right: Jim Knotts, CEO of Operation Homefront and Carlos Evans, a resident at one of our Operation Homefront Villages for wounded warriors, meet up at our Annual Reception.)