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Troops returning home to strained veterans-affairs system

President Barack Obama addresses the troops in Afghanistan, thanking them for their sacrifice and accomplishments.

President Obama may face challenges to deliver on his promise that the U.S. will look after troops and their families as combat operations in Afghanistan come to an end.

“When you get home, we are going to be there for you when you’re in uniform and we will stay there for you when you’re out of uniform, because you’ve earned it,” he told troops at Bagram Air Base on Tuesday.

Fulfilling the president's promise will require the cooperation of a system that is already strained by current demand for veterans’ services and benefits.

Of the 91,000 troops currently in Afghanistan, 23,000 will return to the U.S. by the end of the summer; the remaining 68,000 will gradually come home through December 2014. Many of these veterans will immediately require mental health, disability, education, employment and medical services, but these resources are under varying degrees of strain.

A recent analysis performed by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, for example, found that 49 percent of veterans receive a comprehensive mental health evaluation within 14 days -- it took an average of 50 days for the remaining patients. As of March 31, the VA was considering 897,556 claims for disability benefits; nearly 590,000 of those had been pending for more than 125 days.

“The concern is always there -- will they be able to meet a growing demand when there’s already so much work to be done -- but we’re encouraged by the signals we’ve seen so far from the administration,”  Jay Agg, national communications director of the advocacy organization AMVETS, told msnbc.com.

Among those positive signs, according to Agg, is the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which the president signed last November. The bill includes tax credits for companies that hire unemployed veterans and veterans with disabilities related to their service. The unemployment rate for veterans who served since September 2001 was 12.1 percent in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an effort to reduce the unemployment rate among veterans and their spouses, job fairs sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are being held around the country in partnership with NBC News. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

Agg also cited the administration’s recent move to protect the VA budget from automatic cuts that will be triggered should Congress fail to reduce the deficit this year.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that with the current VA funding intact, the challenge will be serving a population of veterans that keeps getting larger. In 2011, the VA provided specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans.

“It’s going to be a question of capacity,” Korb said. “Do they have enough doctors and people?”

The agency announced last month that it would add 1,600 mental health care clinicians nationwide to its work force of 20,590 in order to counter a shortage that has led to long wait times for appointments and evaluations.

In a national speech to the American people, President Obama says, "I'd like to tell you how we will complete our mission and end the war in Afghanistan. Watch the entire speech. NBC's Brian William anchor NBC's special report.

Ray Kelley, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, is “cautiously optimistic” that the VA will be to meet the demand of returning veterans. Kelley says the agency’s funding must increase even as Congress looks to slash federal spending.

“You can’t have more people coming into the system needing care and flat line the service,” Kelly said. “It’s not that we can cross our fingers – we have to insist that budgets continue to grow.”

The VA’s budget has increased annually since 2009; the president has proposed allocating $140.3 billion to the VA for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The department estimates about $53 billion of that would pay for medical care and that 610,000 patients seen will be veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Kelley believes Congress – persuaded by public sentiment – will find a way to continue funding services for veterans, particularly the VA.

“You’d be hard pressed to find an American who would say, ‘No the VA is getting too much money,’ Kelley said. “The public will is there to take care of veterans.”

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

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