SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The war in Afghanistan is slowly winding down, and over the next two years, thousands of U.S. troops are set to leave the field of battle and return home. Veterans and advocates say there should be more support for their reintegration into civilian life. Job training is just one part of that process. Annmarie Fertoli of member station WNYC spoke with veterans who say the focus must also stay on their physical and their mental health.
ANNMARIE FERTOLI, BYLINE: The latest jobs report and the first of the new year shows a dismal picture for the nation's newest veterans. Unemployment among those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 10.8 percent - far higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent. It's a number that has veterans and their advocates concerned. Anthony Pike is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who works for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Like many advocates, he believes part of the problem is translating military skills to the civilian workforce.
ANTHONY PIKE: Why can't the guy who's driving trucks in Iraq come home and drive a truck at home? Why can't the medic who's, you know, patching people up in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can't he drive an ambulance and be an EMT? Those are certifications that are easy fixes.
FERTOLI: In addition to jobs and training, another area of concern is the mental health challenges facing service men and women, particularly the high rate of suicides. The latest figures from the Pentagon show 349 suicides among active-duty members of the military in 2012. According to the Department of Defense, the army - which sustained the heaviest toll - lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat in Afghanistan last year. IAVA founder Paul Reickhoff says it'll take a strong national effort to begin to address the root causes of suicide.
PAUL REICKHOFF: Suicide itself is not the only problem. It's a culminating event that often results from the failure to address a spectrum of transitional challenges. So, it's mental health, it's financial, it's family, it's sometimes the VA. So, folks shouldn't have to wait months to see a doctor or to navigate bureaucracy to get care.
FERTOLI: Hundreds of thousands of veterans are still experiencing excessive delays in getting their claims processed. Army Veteran Michael Faulkner says it's a major stumbling block.
MICHAEL FAULKNER: The number one problem right now is the fatal funnel that is created at VA with the backlog of claims in all areas; in GI bill, especially in medical. Everywhere that there's a delay, we're hurting a veteran.
FERTOLI: But the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges the problem and is asking veterans to be patient. It's implementing new processes and technologies aimed at eliminating the backlog by 2015, a year after the last U.S. combat troops are expected to return from Afghanistan. For NPR News, I'm Annmarie Fertoli.
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