WASHINGTON (CNN) — In a rare public appearance, President George W. Bush delivered a serious message for the 99%: Step up.
The 43rd President, who has taken to oil painting, emerged from his self-imposed, post-presidential low-profile to urge on the majority of Americans who have not had to sacrifice for — and could easily ignore – two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They are the 1% of America who kept the 99% safe,” Bush said of the 2.5 million military members who have served since 9/11. “While it never hurts to say thank you, that is not really the point.”
Speaking at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas and joined by second lady Jill Biden, the former President did not sugarcoat the disconnect between service members, their families and the civilian public, which he called the “civilian-military divide.”
It’s “troubling” that 84% of veterans say the public isn’t aware of the challenges they face and that 71% of Americans agree, Bush said, citing a survey by the Bush Institute and Syracuse University to be released later this year.
The toll for members of the military has been high. More than 50,000 U.S. and coalition forces have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq while 8,211 have died.
Unemployment dogs veterans. At the end of last year, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans hovered at 10%, compared to just above 7% for non-vets. The suicide rate among vets is astronomical with 22 suicides committed each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. And more than 400,000 veterans are waiting for their disability benefits in a backlogged VA system, says the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“It’s an unprecedented demand that we’ve placed on such a small group,” said Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“After everything they do for us, we have a duty to make that transition as easy as possible,” he said, noting that higher education institutions and employers are among those not doing enough. He even said his own previous efforts, including sporting events designed to help vets, are important but aren’t “transformative enough.”
Bush announced that his Military Service initiative has launched a multi-faceted, public-private partnership aimed at helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life.
The straight-talking former President said employers need to tailor their recruiting and hiring practices to accommodate post-war employees.
“I mean you don’t see many job postings that say “Wanted: experience hunting insurgents and terrorists willing to risk their lives for co-workers,” Bush said. “I mean, what’s a veteran supposed to put down? `My last office was a Humvee?'”
Bush also said Post Traumatic Stress Disorder needs to drop the ‘D’ out of PTSD. He referred to it as an injury that can be treated, and he referred to it as PTS.
“Employers would not hesitate to hire an employee getting treated for a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure and they should not hesitate to hire veterans getting treated for post-traumatic stress,” he said.
Veterans groups praised Bush’s effort.
“I honestly think this is a great program,” said Verna Jones, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation division at the American Legion, who attended the event in Dallas.
But veterans advocates say that action has to be put behind the talk.
Rieckhoff of IAVA said the elephant in the room is, “We got to figure out how to pay for it.”
And the monetary cost is great. A report released last March calculated that the cost of wars, including health care for veterans, would cost up to $6 trillion dollars. The United States has spent around $2 trillion directly on the military operations there.
The Bush Institute initiatives are working with a coalition of government, nonprofit, universities and private companies to de-stigmatize PTSD, help GI Bill recipients stay in school, and encourage employers to give veterans a chance.
“We’ll be … relentless in serving our vets,” Bush said.