On September 25, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and the Brookings Institution unveiled the results of WWP’s 11th Annual Warrior Survey and hosted a discussion about the most pressing issues facing America’s servicemembers and veterans. After experts explored how veterans have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, toxic exposures, military sexual trauma, and access to health care, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon held a conversation on these issues with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA).
Since 9/11, more than 3 million Americans have served in uniform. As of September 25, 2020, the Defense Department reports that 7,054 have died and 53,249 have been wounded in action. Yet, this is just a fraction of those who are estimated to be living with adverse affects. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reports that more than 413,858 have sustained traumatic brain injuries, and RAND estimates that nearly 20% of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. In addition, 6 million veterans have been affected by toxic exposures. As the numbers of killed and wounded decline and the public attention wanes, panelists at the event argued that the need for services and support continues to grow.
The 2020 survey, completed by 28,282 WWP members in May and June 2020, found that the top five most common reported conditions are sleep problems (84%); post-traumatic stress disorder (83%); anxiety (77%); back, neck, and shoulder problems (74%); and depression (72%). Seventy-one percent of respondents said they had definitely been exposed to toxic substances or hazardous chemicals during their service, while 98% of those exposed have experienced symptoms or illnesses related to toxic exposure. Twenty-nine percent said they had difficulty getting mental care, put off getting care, or did not get the care they needed; they reported personal schedules, fear of traumatic memories, or stigma as the top barriers. Eleven percent said they experienced sexual trauma while in the military, with 61% of female respondents reporting they experienced sexual harassment and 44% of female respondents experiencing sexual assault.
After panelists presented the survey findings, O’Hanlon asked Rep. Takano where he thinks the U.S. has seen success in addressing the challenges veterans face. Takano said that “in spite of the new challenges of the pandemic … much progress has been made in reducing veteran homelessness. But as the pandemic presents us with more economic stresses, more veterans are at risk for homelessness.” Takano underscored that his committee, which works across the aisle, is committed not only to the latest generation of veterans who served after the attacks of 9/11, but to all generations of veterans, including those of the Vietnam War, who continue to grapple with the physical and emotional scars of their service.
Asked on the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Takano commended the VA for controlling the spread of COVID-19 at its facilities. Finally, discussing his legislative priorities, Takano cited his satisfaction with the passage of S. 785, which together with his COMPACT Act will, once signed into law, expand access to fast, easy, and free suicide prevention and mental health services for anyone in the veteran population. Suicidal feelings and mental challenges, including depression and loneliness, remain important challenges for policymakers to address. Rep. Takano also pointed to the Women’s Veterans Task Force as a crucial way to focus on barriers faced by women in accessing their benefits.
Discussion on survey results
DiscussantMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and StrategyMelanie Mousseau, Ph.D. Vice President, Program Operations and Partnerships - Wounded Warrior Project
A view from the Hill
DiscussantMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy