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Disabled vets deserve richer lives

About 20 U.S. military veterans kill themselves each day. It's an alarming statistic -- the military suicide rate is 22 percent higher than among civilians -- and President Donald Trump deserves credit for addressing it. But his administration needs to do more.

Trump signed an executive order earlier this month aimed at giving veterans better access to mental-health care by plugging a gap in coverage that affected those newly released from service. The larger problem is how to better integrate veterans with impairments -- mental and physical -- into both the workforce and society.

For decades, too many of them have been shunted into the disability system. About 36 percent of living veterans of wars since the Sept. 11 attacks receive disability payments, compared with about 14 percent of living World War II veterans and 21 percent of those who fought in Vietnam. Nearly half of those who have served since Sept. 11 have sought some form of payment, whether they saw combat or not. Those on disability payments are more likely to be out of the workforce. Labor force participation among male veterans is lower than among non-veterans in every age group over 25, including nearly 5 percent lower than the national average at ages 25 to 34.

Much of this is related to a vast increase in diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts between 11 percent and 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. PTSD is the third-leading disability among recipients, after tinnitus and hearing loss. The total bill this year is likely to run to $84 billion, more than half of the Veterans Administration's $186 billion budget and more than it spends on medical care.

Of course, some veterans are so severely disabled as to require lifelong disability payments. But many others would benefit from care and assistance that directs them toward re-entering society and finding jobs. Unfortunately, the VA's disability compensation bureaucracy and its medical treatment system are managed separately, when they should be working in tandem. There is a perverse incentive for those making the transition to civilian life to apply for payments that can lead to low-income dependency -- if your health deteriorates, your disability pay goes up; if you get better, you check gets smaller.

None of this is a secret. Previous attempts to change the system, however, have been quashed by veterans' groups, which have tremendous sway in Washington. Fortunately, VA Secretary David Shulkin is going where his predecessors didn't dare, calling last fall for a Veterans Benefit Advisory Board to find ways of "enabling independence so veterans can succeed on their own." There are models the agency can follow; groups such as Hire Heroes USA and Operation Homefront provide job and skills training as well as medical services. Those who have risked their lives for their country deserve no less.

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