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Our Opinion • Parades are nice, but vets need our help

Veterans Day (Friday, Nov. 11) is an important holiday, but this year, as our nation prepares for a new wave of soldiers to return from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's also a particularly sobering one.

While our returning men and women don't face the hostile homecoming that some vets had to endure decades ago, they face their own serious hardships.

The U.S. Labor Department last month reported that the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans stands at 12.1 percent, significantly higher than the figure for civilians.

More troubling, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans, who make up 13 percent of the population, represent one-third of the adults who are homeless. On any given night, the agency figures, roughly 131,000 veterans are without homes - including 1,500 veterans from the current wars.

While the numbers are less precise, the department has said an estimated 20 percent of all suicide victims in the United States are veterans. A study by armytimes.com calculated that in 2009, nearly 2,000 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars attempted to take their lives.

There are similar disparities between veterans and the general population for substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness.

At some point, the numbers are numbing.

The sobering truth is this: The people who risked their lives for a safe and secure America are returning home to a less-than-certain future. Veterans groups have been talking about this for years, and finally, it seems, they have someone at the top who is listening.

Last year, Gen. Eric Shinseki, President Obama's secretary of Veterans Affairs,vowed to lead a national drive to end veteran homelessness in the next five years. He also ponied up $3.2 billion to bolster programs to provide housing, education, jobs and health care to help troubled veterans before they hit the streets and to aid the transition of 40,000 veterans released each year from prisons.

Meanwhile, Obama's proposed tax breaks for companies that hire unemployed or disabled veterans is expected to clear the U.S. Senate this week.

Closer to home, we are grateful for the stand-down events - such as the one held Oct. 15 in Troutdale, and another sponsored by Central City Concern at the Oregon Convention Center in September. These events give veterans the opportunity to connect with counselors, tap into veterans resources, receive health screenings, and register with the Veterans Administration Hospital.

Ceremonies and parades on Veterans Day are important, and we should gather Friday to pay tribute to these former soldiers. In Portland, the annual morning parade in the Hollywood District, starting at 9:45 a.m., will be one of the highlights.

But once the crowds have disappeared and the holiday observance comes to an end, veterans still struggle to find work and to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

So let's gather Friday to pay tribute to these former soldiers, but let's also commit to meaningful, year-round support of these Americans who were willing to sacrifice on behalf of the greater good.