Richer, smarter, better off: Things are looking up for wounded warriors

Many disabled veterans are better off financially than they were four years ago, according to a recent Wounded Warrior Project survey of post-9/11 veterans.

Despite multiple service-connected injuries or health problems, more disabled vets have their own homes, jobs and college degrees.

“We’re continuing to see that positive momentum and realizing that when they transition, it’s not the end of the road, but it’s the beginning of a new journey,” said Melanie Mousseau, metrics director for Wounded Warrior Project, which conducted the 33,000-person survey with research partner Westat this year. “That’s really promising seeing that coming out of the data.”

This year, 36 percent of warriors said they had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 25 percent of respondents in 2014. The percentage of homeowners in this group grew from 46 to 60 percent in that time frame.

And since 2014, the unemployment rate for disabled veterans has trended downward, as has unemployment among post-9/11 veterans as a whole.

For the first time in the survey’s recent history, more respondents said their financial condition has improved from one year ago than said it has gotten worse. In this year’s survey, 27 percent said their financial status is better now than it was a year ago and 25 percent said it is worse, with 43 percent saying it’s the same. By comparison, in 2016 24 percent said their finances were better and 30 percent said they were worse.

Though trends are improving, many of the veterans who participated in the latest annual Wounded Warrior Project survey, which included a small percentage of service members still on active-duty, still encounter obstacles in these areas.

The study showed that while the majority of veterans are using VA education benefits to pay for school, including through the GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, about 33 percent owe $30,000 or more in student loan debt.

Such debt, from student loans and other sources, could make it difficult to qualify for a mortgage, the study’s authors write, “especially if they have limited savings.”

Only a small fraction of all survey respondents, 3 percent, said they had no debt at all.

These statistics could stem from persistent challenges finding gainful employment that some respondents highlighted in the survey. In many cases, veterans struggled to find a job because of mental or physical hardship; others said public perceptions about disabled veterans and PTSD were hurting their chances.

 One veteran wrote, “I found it extremely difficult to find work, and I feel that was because of my military history. Many people continued to ask questions like could I cope with normal life and how would I deal with difficult situations. And they asked those questions time and time again.”

Another said, “It is not that no one will hire me because of my injury or disability, but because they later will force me out of the job for that reason because I need to go to the hospital or appointments so much for my disabilities.” Additionally, “My work history requires an employer to think out of the box about who and why they are hiring.”

Aside from financial outcomes, gainful employment can have other benefits, according to a group of panelists who discussed the survey findings and their implications at a recent Brookings Institution event in Washington, D.C.

“People that are gainfully employed are engaged, often, in something that they feel a mission, purpose or sense of value in,” said Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevent at the VA. “It can parallel their military time where they have this unit cohesion … fun, friendship, sense of purpose, mission, belongingness and also practical things like healthcare and a predictable routine and contributions that they feel positive about.”

Mousseau said the Wounded Warrior Project’s research showed greater job satisfaction among veterans whose employers had veteran affinity groups.

Wounded Warrior Project CEO Michael Linnington said the organization is taking notes on the survey data and long-term trends, including on the employment front, to steer internal decisions about programming and advocacy efforts.

“We’ve put a significant effort into finding opportunities for warriors to get engaged where they can get settled in careers of their choice,” he said. “But we also have probably a higher number of veterans that are in jobs that although provide them with the ability to sustain their lifestyle, it doesn’t give them the ability to do more. So we’re looking at better jobs, better careers for warriors.”