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Veterans finally get debate mention but are they happy with what they heard?

The president and Mitt Romney spar over support for leaving troops in place after the Iraq War.

The word “veteran” was uttered seven times during Monday night’s debate – each time by President Barack Obama.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney did not use the word although he did say: “We're blessed with terrific soldiers.”

Three times, including his closing remarks, Obama veered momentarily into economic and health concerns facing the tens of thousands of men and women returning from war and those ex-service members trying to crack into the civilian work force. He mentioned recently having lunch with a veteran in Minnesota who, due to medical-certification procedures, can’t simply transfer the skills he learned as a combat medic to become a licensed civilian nurse. And he cited work done by First Lady Michelle Obama on the “Joining Forces” initiative, through which 2,000 companies have hired or trained 125,000 veterans or military spouses.

“After a decade of war, it's time to do some nation-building here at home. And what we can now do is free up some resources to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans ...” Obama said. “Making sure that, you know, our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, making sure that the certifications that they need for good jobs of the future are in place.”

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Those shout outs marked the first substantive attention either candidate has paid to former service members during their three debates – and they came 19 days after a leading veterans group urged the contenders to start discussing some of the home-front costs of two American wars, including a higher unemployment rate among ex-troops and battle-related anxiety symptoms linked to an alarming military suicide rate.

The president and Mitt Romney debate the best strategy for keeping the military strong.

On the day after the final direct, verbal showdown between Romney and Obama, four veterans offered their reactions.

Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan nonprofit with more than 200,000 members:

Q: What is the most critical issue facing military members?

A: Unemployment, but we've yet to hear either candidate address the scope of the problem – let alone smart solutions. In September, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was two percentage points above the general public at 9.7 percent, and even worse for female veterans at 19.9 percent. We must do better.

Q: Did you hear what you needed to hear about that issue?

A: In last night's debate, veteran unemployment briefly became a subject of discussion – finally.

Q: What is your takeaway from last night's debate?

A: The new veteran community needs real leadership and commitment from our next president to reverse negative trends in unemployment, suicide and (Department of Veterans Affairs) services. We haven't seen either candidate step up to the plate, so we'll keep asking the tough questions until November 6th.

Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group and a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. As a U.S. Army sergeant, he earned a Purple Heart medal for combat wounds he sustained in Iraq in 2009:

Q: What is the most critical issue facing military members?

A: The budgetary cutbacks on defense spending leading to nearly a million service members losing their jobs, which will send them to the unemployment line. Additional cutbacks in veteran-appropriated budgets by way of education and medical benefits will invariably leave many with unfulfilled promises made to them for their service to our nation, while our government creates more lenient guidelines for illegal immigrants.

Q: Did you hear what you needed to hear about that issue?

A: No, but I do feel as though our efforts to raise awareness of the detrimental impacts facing our veterans, and how that affects our national economy, both now and in the future, are being heard.

Q: What is your takeaway from last night's debate?

A: While I'm not enthusiastic about the lack of bipartisan efforts from our federal legislators, (and) neither party looks appealing to me, I personally think the president has wiped the floor with Governor Romney in every debate. Although I've always considered myself a Republican, I don't feel it's in the best interest to elect Governor Romney as president. Electing Governor Romney will give Republicans control of the House, Senate, and presidency, which doesn't seem like much of a democracy to me, especially with a group of federal legislators whom can't seem to agree on much of anything except the end of a work-day or session.

Genevieve Chase, founder of American Women Veterans, a foundation that works to improve the lives of women veterans and their families. She served in Afghanistan in 2006 and remains in the U.S. Army Reserves. She earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in a bomb blast in Helmand Province:

Q: What is the most critical issue facing military members?

A: What's going to happen (when) we draw down our presence in Afghanistan? How will the military, responsibly and with the best interests of its members and families in mind, decide which troops will be kicked out in order to bring down its numbers? The witch hunts have already started and I'm learning of incidents that are disconcerting.

Q: Did you hear what you needed to hear about that issue?

A: The money our country thinks we'll save in the defense budget will need to be put toward our veterans – there’s no getting around the fact that America will be paying for these wars in one way or another, long after they're over. I'd like to know how either candidate proposes they'll do that.

Q: What is your takeaway from last night's debate?

A: That war has become so lucrative for some and the defense industry employs thousands of veterans who have families and no degrees – they will need jobs in the post-war economy. Before we espouse ideologies, what are the practical measures being considered for the short-term issues – or are we still being so reactive that we're not looking five years ahead? Additionally, in terms of veterans, if the VA backlog isn't being handled now, why is that and what's being done or promised to address it?

John E. Pickens III, executive director of VeteransPlus, a nonprofit that has offered financial counseling to more than 150,000 current and former service members.  He served as a combat medic with the U.S. Army Special Forces and the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1970s. 

Q: What is the most critical issue facing military members?

A: The unexpected obstacles they face while transitioning into civilian life: jobs and employment. In this economy, it’s a difficult transition. For those who are lucky enough to be engaged by the VA understand their benefits, but they may not realize there are delays getting those benefits. They’re going to wait. That’s improving. But from our experience, those who are transitioning are so excited about the prospect of civilian life, they sometimes fail to see some of the obstacles.

Q: Did you hear what you needed to hear about that issue?

A: No, I honestly didn’t. I was glad that, especially the president, talked about how the nation owes veterans a debt of gratitude and good care. But it’s a much deeper subject than that. The military is an honorable profession. And even though they’re drawing down, we’re wondering: Are people going to continue to look at the military as a good profession, as something I want to go into after high school? It’s that old adage that people will join the military if they truly believe it’s a respected career and that (society) will treat you well when you finish your career.

Q: What is your takeaway from last night's debate?

A: It’s always good to hear people mentioning how we need to appreciate our veterans in a public forum. But somebody I admire a lot, Col. David Sutherland, who co-wrote that outstanding white paper, “Sea of Goodwill”, had a statement that has always stuck with me: ‘Well done is better than well said.’ ”

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