Keeping Obama’s many promises to veterans will be daunting

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President Obama has kept his vow to wind down two wars and bring home troops — but meeting the job, educational and medical needs of those returning veterans also has become a challenging priority for the White House.

Mr. Obama made veterans’ care a major theme during the 2008 campaign. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has embraced a broad program of tax credits to spur hiring of veterans and approved record budgets to bolster health care for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As you reflect on recent years, as we look ahead to the challenges we face as a nation and the leadership that’s required, you don’t just have my words, you have my deeds,” Mr. Obama said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., in July. “You have my track record.”

But the challenges are daunting.

On the health front, the Department of Veterans Affairs processed a record number of claims for service-related health problems in 2010 and 2011.

So many are returning home that more than half of the vets who need immediate mental-health care have to wait an average of 50 days for the proper evaluation, according to an inspector general report earlier this year.

Finding jobs may even be tougher in a sluggish economy where overall unemployment remains high.

Veterans younger than 34 had an unemployment rate of 12 percent in September, and those 18 to 24 faced a 14.4 percent rate.

According to the White House, 2,000 companies have hired or trained 125,000 veterans or military spouses under this program, and these efforts, combined with the president’s policies, have led to a 20 percent decrease in the unemployment rate for veterans in the past year.

Veterans groups say the unemployment rate is still too high and they want more transparency so they can judge what’s working — whether it’s tax credits for businesses that hire veterans, waiving credentialing requirements for veterans for some jobs, or partnerships with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to make it easier to connect veterans with companies that want to hire them.

“We would like to see them pushing harder,” said Ian de Planque, deputy legislative director at the American Legion. “They have been very supportive, and he has signed bills and pushed several initiatives, but we certainly would like to be seeing more results.”

Mr. Obama’s latest budget included $74 billion in mandatory spending for Veterans Affairs and $64 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2012, the highest ever allocated to the department, according to the White House. The administration also has pledged that VA spending would be exempt from the “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts facing Congress and the White House at year’s end.

In November 2011, Mr. Obama approved a tax credit of up to $5,600 to businesses that hire unemployed veterans and doubled the existing credit for long-term unemployed veterans with service-related disabilities to $9,600.

But without an agency tracking how many veterans the tax credits and other pilot programs are assisting, it’s difficult to tell whether the programs and policies are having much impact. If defense sequestration cuts go through, veterans groups worry it would be disastrous for hundreds of thousands of veterans who depend on civilian defense-contracting jobs.

“The drawdown of forces is putting hundreds of thousands of soldiers and contractors and other people in defense-related fields back into the job market, which is already suffering,” Mr. de Planque said.

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