The Shameful Way America Treats Its Veterans

The number of homeless Vietnam veterans today is greater than the number of soldiers who died during the war

President Obama attended a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Getty

On Wednesday, President Obama attended a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In his remarks, Obama attempted to strike a balance between highlighting the strides his administration has made in expanding services and benefits for veterans, while acknowledging the ways the country, and the Department of Veterans Affairs in particular, has failed them. "The unacceptable problems that we've seen – like long wait times, and some veterans not getting the timely care that they need – is a challenge for all of us if we are to match our words with deeds," the president said.

Last year a CNN report showed that at least 40 veterans had died waiting for care at VA facilities in the Phoenix area; the scandal mushroomed when an internal audit found more than 120,000 veterans across the country were left waiting or never got care, even as VA employees were trained to manipulate wait time numbers internally. It's a scandal that continues to sting. A report published Wednesday shows the VA doled out $142 million in performance bonuses in 2014, the same year it was being investigated for manipulating data. And last month Hillary Clinton came under fire for telling Rachel Maddow the problem has "not been as widespread as it has been made out to be." (Her remarks stood in contrast to those made by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki when he resigned last May: "I said when this situation began weeks to months ago that I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe it. It is systemic.")

As upsetting as the as the VA's failures are, they're the tip of the iceberg for how the United States fails its veterans.

Less than half of the country's 21.2 million veterans were employed in 2014 — 573,000 were looking for work, while 10.5 million were neither employed nor seeking employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Veterans are twice as likely as the average American to be chronically homeless. In fact, more than a third of homeless individuals across the country are veterans — between 529,000 and 840,000, depending on the time of year, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. At this point, the number of homeless Vietnam veterans, male and female, is greater than the number of soldiers who died during the war.

It's even worse for female veterans, for whom the risk of becoming homeless is four times greater than for male veterans.

According to the VA, about 70 percent of homeless veterans suffer from substance abuse problems, and some 45 percent are suffering from mental illnesses, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD diagnoses are on the rise, with as many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans reporting they have experienced it. Even as those rates are rising, the U.S. justice system is failing to take mental illness into account in criminal trials. A report released Wednesday by the Death Penalty Information Center found that mental health is often not weighed as a factor during trial. The DPIC estimates that there are some 300 veterans on death row today, and many, if not most, of them did not habe their mental health considered at trial.

On Tuesday, Ben Carson closed the GOP debate by saying that during the two hours the candidates stood on the stage "two veterans have taken their lives out of despair." That statistic was extrapolated from a 2012 VA analysis of veteran suicides in 21 states between 1999 and 2011, so it offers only an incomplete and outdated sketch of the problem. (The VA, with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Defense, is apparently working on a more comprehensive study.)

The debate over the number, though, might speak to the United States' biggest failure of all when it comes to its veterans: not understanding the full scope of the problem.