A mere three months after the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban was overthrown and a US-supported administration was installed in Kabul. Yet 10 years later, US and coalition troops are still fighting in Afghanistan, marking the War on Terror as American’s second longest war ever, behind the War on Drugs.
Though media coverage of the war has felt more like reruns than updates, this year has produced true results. On April 30, President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a joint Navy SEAL and CIA operation.
Six months later, for the second time since former President George W Bush hung the infamous “Mission Accomplished” sign across the control tower of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an end is in sight for the war in Iraq. On Oct. 21, Obama announced that all US troops would be out of Iraq by Christmas.
When Santa Fe native and Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry returned home after his sixth tour of duty to the Middle East, the city threw him a well-deserved hero’s welcome. But for other service members returning home to New Mexico, the struggle is just beginning. Faced with a tough economy and a job market that doesn’t always recognize the value of military experience, veterans are having a tough time gaining traction in the twilight of the Great Recession. According to Chris Zafra, a veteran coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, during the fourth quarter of federal fiscal year 2011, only 43 percent of post-9.11-era veterans found employment. Nationally, the veteran unemployment rate is 12 percent, significantly higher than the overall rate of 8.6 percent.
It gets worse: Of 11,670 veterans living in Santa Fe County, nearly 300 are homeless, according to an estimate by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. The NMCEH’s five-year plan to end homelessness, unveiled in 2007, has created more day and resource shelters in addition to affordable housing, Hank Hughes, the coalition’s executive director, tells SFR. But as 2012 approaches, Hughes admits the coalition has fallen short in some areas. “The recession affected some progress,” he says.
The Obama administration has a similar, if less expansive, goal: ending veteran homelessness by 2015. On Dec. 13, the US Department of Veterans Affairs announced that veteran homelessness declined by 12 percent nationwide between January 2010 and January 2011. In November, Obama also signed the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act,” which provides tax credits to businesses that hire unemployed or disabled veterans.
Even as troops began to leave Iraq, Congress engaged in a war of its own over language in the fiscal year 2012 defense spending bill that allows US officials to charge and indefinitely detain individuals suspected of terrorist involvement, including American citizens. US Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, voted against the bill after protesting that language [SFReporter.com, Dec. 12: “Heinrich Decries Language in Controversial Defense Authorization Act”]. Both New Mexico senators voted for it. (In an ironic twist, the final version passed on Dec. 15—Bill of Rights Day.)
The war is not over. Many troops who were stationed in Iraq have merely been shifted to Kuwait, ready to once again cross the border if the need arises. And if the defense authorization act is any indication, international borders will not contain America’s War on Terror anyway. The federal government projects close to a million service members transitioning to civilian life between 2012 and 2016. Santa Fe’s civilians may soon be subjected to situations more familiar to soldiers, and vice versa.