I consider myself fortunate. Very fortunate. In the five years since I have been a part of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I have walked the halls of the Pentagon, rode the elevators in the Department of Veteran Affairs and stormed Capitol Hill to accomplish a single and poignant goal: improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
Gradually, I have seen the dialogue of our nation and our nation’s leaders shift, bringing to the forefront the urgency of taking care of our nation’s newest generation of veterans. IAVA has led this shift, and I am fortunate to be a part of it.
Just four years ago, a few other dedicated IAVA employees and I embarked on a journey that would take us from scrappy young combat veterans shaking the dust off our suits to advocating for one of our nation’s greatest accomplishments: the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008.
This was no easy task. Hundreds of meetings on Capitol Hill, constant dialogue with the Bush administration and thousands of hours of brainstorming was all we knew for nearly two years. But it was all worth it in the end.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill was the single most robust education advancement passed by Congress in decades. To date more than 300,000 veterans have taken advantage of this benefit. When it was signed into law, that pen stroke reached every man and woman in uniform, at all corners of the globe. I should know, because I was deployed in South America when it happened, and I watched with pride as members of the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines high-fived each other as they read the headlines. I’m sure the Coast Guard was high-fiving as well, but it was hard to see them from our mountaintop.
As IAVA continued to establish itself inside the Beltway, we began to notice something all too familiar. Rhetoric was preventing sound decisions. For years, the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs had been late, preventing thousands of veterans from receiving timely and adequate care. We asked “Why?,” and the only response we received was, “That’s how it’s always been.”
We set out to change that.
With the help of an innovative advocacy campaign, we were able to say “out with the old and in with the new.” In December 2009, advance funding was signed in to law. The VA now receives its budget a year in advance, allowing for proper budgetary planning.
When this bill was signed into law I was high in the mountaintops, this time in Afghanistan, my 4th deployment since 9/11. Instead of attending a signing ceremony in the White House, I went on patrol.
There are many other challenges new veterans face when they return home. A battered economy has driven unemployment for veterans to an astronomical number. An antiquated disability claims process leaves thousands without proper benefit payments. The most tragic issue facing our newest greatest generation is the skyrocketing number of suicides: one servicemember committs suicide roughly every 36 hours, according to a recent report. There have been four possible suicides reported from Ft. Hood over the past few weeks.
Combat veterans surviving the throes of war only to be struck down by suicide, left without a job or struggling to obtain healthcare is a national tragedy that must be stopped on all fronts.
On the battlefield, we are taught to take care of our teammates to our left and to our right. The same holds true for our mission at IAVA. No matter what the challenge, we continue to fight to take care of our men and women in uniform and their families.
Whenever the rhetoric in Washington gets too thick, I am reminded of a sweaty afternoon in October 2004 on the streets of Fallujah. During a firefight, the scope on top of my rifle was struck by a sniper’s bullet merely fractions of an inch from taking my life. The shrapnel that is embedded in my face from the bullet serves as a constant reminder to me that there will never be a time and a place where I can be struck down and not get back up.
Later that day, after the bandages were applied to my face, I got back up and continued to fight. Not for my own glory, but to protect those around me.
Today, I am in a different battlefield. Even though I traded my fatigues in for a suit and tie, my pack for a briefcase and my rifle for a pen, I will continue to protect my fellow veterans and show them that we’ve got their backs.
Todd Bowers is the Deputy Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest organization for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. IAVA’s mission is to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and their families. Bowers joined IAVA in 2007 as Director of Government Affairs, after two tours in Iraq. During his second deployment, he was wounded when a sniper bullet hit the scope of his rifle and exploded in his face, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. In 2009 Bowers deployed to Afghanistan as a civil affairs team chief.