Dear Patty and Sandy,
I spent much of the past six years fulminating against the Bush administration for putting military men and women into harm's way and then failing to take adequate care of them upon their return from battle. I don't think all my ranting did much to help the actual veterans. I'm not Superman, but I probably have some skills that could be useful to some people. If nothing else, I'm a warm body that can schlep stuff and drive people around. How can I do my part to help the folks who helped our nation?
—Henry From Boston
You are right—the 1.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan deserve our support. But supporting returning veterans is clearly the responsibility of the U.S. government—and the first action you should take is to encourage the government to support veterans with the basic homecoming, health care, education, and social service benefits they need and deserve.
There is some good news on this front. The 2008 passage of the new GI Bill, modeled on the best aspects of the post-WWII program, will dramatically improve post-9/11 veterans' ability to get the education they want after military service. It never would have passed without active citizens pushing it forward; even YouTube played a role. But many other aspects of veterans' services are not in good shape. Mental health needs are woefully underfunded at a time when both suicide and PTSD are on the rise among vets, the Veterans Affairs health system is overloaded, and jobs are tough to find.
On Jan. 20, the Senate committee on veterans' affairs held its first hearing of 2009 and invited top veterans organizations to present their concerns. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America listed its top legislative priorities, including professional mental-health and brain-injury screening for all incoming and outgoing military personnel, cutting the VA claims backlog in half, supporting veterans' training and employment needs, and addressing homelessness and foreclosures among veterans. You can educate yourself on these issues and take action by joining the IAVA supporters network and receiving bulletins on legislation affecting veterans.
Usually my mom talks about using your time, your money, and your voice to help the causes you believe in. In most cases, all three can be equally effective, but unfortunately veterans charities have a bad reputation for inefficiency. They are two times more likely to hire professional fundraising companies, which means significantly less of your money goes to those in need. So I would recommend focusing on your time and your voice for this one. If you're committed to giving money, be extra careful to make sure the organization is reputable. And never give money to a phone solicitor without doing your research first, even if they pull on your patriotic heartstrings. A good place to start that research is Charity Navigator's recently published list of the best- and worst-rated veterans charities.
As my mom said, advocating for better long-term services is crucial, but legislation can be slow, and there are more veterans coming home every day. So how can you use your time to help those immediately in need? The Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans has a great list of volunteer opportunities, ranging from organizing gift packs to helping transport injured vets to medical appointments. There are also several VA Hospitals in the Boston area, with volunteer opportunities similar to those in other hospitals. With all the time you used to spend fulminating, you should be able to make a real difference in a vet's life.