President Lincoln’s promise to care for those “who have borne the battle” is a constant reminder that America has a solemn obligation to support our veterans after they have sacrificed for our country. Even before the end of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first GI Bill to help provide education, housing, business loans, unemployment payments and job training for veterans. Even after the controversies of Vietnam and Iraq, Congress came together on a bipartisan basis to expand veterans’ benefits, most recently a decade ago.
With extended deployments and a new “permanent war” continuing in hotspots across the globe, one would expect that to be true today. But it’s a joyless testament to our broken politics that meaningful support for our veterans isn’t top of mind in the current body politic. The spirit of support seems to have waned. And with the needs being so great and the government’s tools so often inadequate, it falls to the rest of us — in the business community, civil society and elsewhere — to fill the leadership void.
In a little noticed but boldly important recent move, Comcast-NBCUniversal stepped up to the plate to provide returning veterans virtually cost-free access to the internet. Alone, the effort won’t salve every wound, repair VA health care, or ensure true civic reintegration for returning veterans — but it’s a start. More importantly, it shows veterans that someone is thinking about them, and that corporate America is digging deep to provide access to the most revolutionary development of our age.
The simple act of providing internet access can, for some, be life-changing, and, to paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, send out “ripples of hope” to our vets. Access to the VA’s benefits website, for instance, can change that notorious bureaucracy from an obstacle to a partner, putting a huge array of tools, services and information within easy reach.
Home broadband also supercharges health care in other ways, enabling advanced services like telemedicine and remote diagnoses. Online access is often the difference between sickness and health for the 30 percent of veterans who live in rural communities hours from the closest VA clinic, and especially for older, low-income veterans, half of whom currently lack access to the internet.
Very low cost internet access is also a great digital update for the original GI Bill as a pathway to jobs. Over 90 percent of employers recruit online, and many new jobs are independent contractors fueled by digital platforms in the “gig” economy.
Most important of all are the social and cultural dimensions.
Greater social connectivity is critical for reintegrating returning veterans, and tales are legion of veterans banding together online to bring the “leave no one behind” ethos that sustained them overseas to the homefront — with social networks, check-ins and rapid response teams ready to rush to an at-risk veteran’s home if the community sees troubling red flags. As one veteran who found a new “brotherhood” online put it, “we wouldn’t have met without the internet.”
The spike in veterans’ suicides is a shameful and painful crisis — an unspeakable horror and a national abdication — and online connection and counseling has become a frontline of prevention.
Nevertheless, less than two-thirds of low-income veterans have home broadband — compared to over 80 percent for the overall population. That’s over a million former servicemembers cut off from the information, programs and social engagement they deserve.
It’s time now for everyone to step up, honor the words of President Lincoln, and provide our returning veterans with the best digital skills and services possible. In this time of broken politics, such efforts have the added benefit of bringing us together around an idea that has universal support: doing right by those who have borne the battle and their families.
Jason Forrester served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense from 2013-15 and has been an advocate for veterans, troops, and their families for almost a dozen years.