Veterans are at a disadvantage in America.
American veterans face disproportionately high rates of under-employment, exploitation and homelessness, as well as a lack of access to the physical and mental health resources they require. These factors, combined with the silencing of veteran voices and widespread misunderstanding of veterans’ needs and experiences, have contributed to the number of veteran suicides.
Our nation’s veterans are left out of the very rights they preserve by their service. This must change if Americans are genuinely concerned about veterans’ well-being and dignity. This must change if America is truly going to be the Land of Opportunity for those who served in the military.
It is because of these disadvantages that the federal government has for over 50 years legislated protections specifically for veterans, protections that — much like the protections for racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups — include equal employment opportunity, access to education, fair housing, and protection from hate crimes.
But these protections are limited in scope and do not cover the full gamut of veteran needs. Furthermore, veterans and employers are under-informed about these laws and opportunities, and institutions grant these protections inconsistently if at all. This needs to change if we are going to address the myriad challenges faced by our nation’s soldiers and veterans.
I have watched in horror as members of this administration’s Cabinet undermine protections in employment, education, housing, even the environment. We can stop veterans’ civil rights from being added to that list.
This Veterans Day, regardless of our political leanings, we can all take a stand to make sure that the civil rights and protections for veterans are strengthened, and that soldiers can transition from military service to being productive citizens after their discharge.
Some employment protections exist for veterans, helping them get or retain jobs, but protections are limited and poorly enforced. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, birthed by WWII Navy veteran John F. Kennedy in 1961, actually excludes veterans from their list of protected characteristics. The 1974 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment and Assistance Act (VEVRAA) created employment protections, but the labor law only extends to public sector employment and private employers receiving $150,000 or more per year in federal funding. It is further limited to veterans who have been in combat or who are disabled, excluding peacetime veterans without any service-connected injuries.
Veteran under-employment, however, is not the only area that can be affected by better civil rights legislation. Another law that protects our nation’s veterans is the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed in 2009 as a rider to the National Defense Authorization. The act added sexuality, gender and disability to hate crimes protections, but its safeguards for service members are limited to the first five years after discharge. The majority of our nation’s veterans are therefore excluded.
As for education, many elite colleges offering high-value degrees graduate fewer veterans than predatory for-profit schools. This could be because the massive amount of federal funding they receive acts against incentives to seek GI Bill recipients or to recruit transitioning enlisted veterans. It doesn’t help that theDepartment of Education’s Office for Civil Rights offers no specific protections to veterans. Housing is the remaining area that is typically the focus of federal protection, but the amount of ink spilled about veteran homelessness conceals the fact that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity excludes veterans in the same way.
This Veterans Day, let’s put a stop to token expressions of gratitude. Besides being shallow gestures bereft of meaning, they don’t pay the bills or put roofs over veterans’ heads. Instead, take meaningful action to protect our vets. Anyone can write their federal legislators and ask them to #ProtectOurVets by improving protections for veterans and strengthening enforcement mechanisms. If you want to learn more, or if you want to have something to give your member of congress, you can download and share the same one I provided to the offices of several members just last month.
Closing the gap between veterans and their civil rights is imperative if we as a people are to truly “support the troops” this Veterans Day, or any day for that matter.
*Originally published in TheHill.com on November 8, 2017