Lip service does nothing to help veterans

Estimates are that anywhere between 22 and 50 veterans commit suicide every day in our country. Although it’s a tragedy, I don’t find it very shocking.

We have spent 14 years at war, throwing our young men and women (yes, women see combat too, despite an outdated combat-exclusion policy) into fights that were poorly planned and executed. The problem is that we do not have adequate services in our country to tackle the myriad issues associated with the ugly outcomes borne of killing enemies.

Recognizing the problem of veteran suicide is a great first step, but what do we plan to do about it? I transitioned out of the Navy about a year and a half ago and have been actively involved in civic issues, but something has been missing.

Although our region has a large footprint of military, defense industry and veterans population, our candidates and politicians — particularly at the city level — aren’t leading meaningful public discussions about the real issues facing veterans.

While the city of San Diego is prone to lip service, the county provides a helpful counter-example. Chairman Bill Horn and Vice Chairman Dave Roberts are extraordinarily committed to serving our veterans in a manner commensurate with their service.

They have declared 2015 Year of the Veteran and have reorganized veterans services at the county, pulling them out from Aging and Independence Services, for example, to report directly to the director of Health and Human Services.

Consider the city level for contrast. Until 2009, the city charter included a veterans hiring policy that only awarded extra points to those who had served during the time of the draft. Councilmember Todd Gloria was able to amend the city’s hiring policy to account for veterans who served in any war.

That’s wonderful, but why did it take so damn long? We had already been at war for eight years by the time Gloria’s change was implemented. The change wasn’t opposed, but no one had previously thought of it. Given the concentration of veterans in our region, that is a telling indicator of how veteran-related policies are stuck on the backburner of everyone’s minds.

The good news is that we have organizations like 2-1-1, the San Diego Veterans Coalition and the United Veterans Council working hard to increase services and provide help garnering resources for our veterans. 2-1-1 provides a regularly updated, constantly improving one-stop shop for all veterans services in the region. It is the government’s job to provide these services to veterans. It is the commitment we make, as a country, to our men and women while they are in uniform.

There is plenty of room for improvement at the city level without duplicating these great efforts. How about throwing veterans toward public safety?

A recent Department of Justice report was critical of San Diego Police Department misconduct, and Chief Shelley Zimmerman seems pretty committed to addressing them. Guaranteeing veterans an interview with SDPD could go a long way toward remedying its recruiting and retention issues.

The city could even lead the effort to work with California Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission to establish a program allowing for a truncated police academy. What if Navy veterans — all of whom are trained firefighters — had a truncated fire academy?

But the city could do more than just reform niche areas. What if the city committed to hiring x number of veterans a year, or gave the veterans they have on contract a 3 percent across-the-board salary increase?

For infrastructure projects, we could commit to using companies with a high concentration of veterans. And some Community Projects, Programs, and Services money would be well-spent on veterans’ mental health programs to counter the suicide rate that everyone agrees we must do something about.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and council, if you want to show veterans you care, a website is not the answer. We already have that and, frankly, city IT doesn’t have a reputation for being the most innovative organization.

The answer is small, but meaningful, policy changes that reflect your commitment to the men and women in our region who had the courage to serve. The first step? Declare 2015 The Year of the Veteran alongside the county.

What about the future? I say that veterans, military families, and their supporters need to force a conversation in 2016. Candidates, tell us what you plan to do to help provide services to veterans. Tell us how you will improve education, employment and transition services. Give specifics.

Be careful, though: Veterans possess a unique ability to detect bullcrap, and we respect those who say what they mean and mean what they say.

VanDiver is a 12-year Navy veteran, faculty at three universities, and serves on several boards focused on human trafficking, national and international security, and emergency management. He is co-director of the Truman National Security Project San Diego Chapter. Follow Shawn VanDiver on Twitter @shawnjvandiver.

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