Guest column:

How to fulfill our sacred obligation to military veterans

In April, I visited the Las Vegas Veterans Village, a nonprofit organization that works with homeless veterans. I was several thousand miles from my hometown of South Bend, Ind., which is why I was surprised — and pleased — to meet a fellow South Bend native, Doug, who now lives in the village.

I couldn't help but think about the fact that we were both from South Bend, both veterans, experiencing very different realities after our return from service.

When our country's women and men raise their right hands and vow to give everything to our country, America commits to taking care of them and their families. Yet in Nevada and across the country, we have too often fallen short of our sacred obligation.

With veterans comprising nearly 9% of Nevada's population, a disproportionate share of the Battle Born State has borne the battle. Like so many of our veterans, they often return seeking treatment for the wounds of war, visible and invisible, even as Nevada recently ranked last in the nation for providing health care to veterans. Other veterans struggle to find work or find their place in their families and their communities. Some don't find a home at all; veterans make up 11.5% of Nevada's homeless population.

Recently, Nevada has taken a number of encouraging steps to empower our returning warriors and their families. During the last legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed bills that will make it easier for veterans to know their state is supporting them — such as waiving fees for veterans taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes and ensuring that benefits cannot be denied to LGBTQ service members.

It's a promising start, but on the heels of Veterans Day this week, let's commit to doing even more. We must support veterans and their families throughout their military journey, provide the care they have earned to heal the wounds of war, and engage all Americans to welcome service members back into their communities and ensure that they can thrive.

First, we must stand with our active-duty service members and their families, as they sacrifice to defend our country. The strength of our military families is crucial to readiness and retention. So we should ensure that every child of a military family has access to high-quality early-learning and child care, and train teachers to help students who move frequently feel like they belong in school. We need to unlock the potential of military spouses, building on steps Nevada's taken to expedite teacher licensing. We must also protect immigrant service members and their families from unlawful deportation, and ensure that transgender service members can serve openly as they put their lives on the line for our country.

Second, when service members return from active duty, let's commit to healing the wounds of war and guaranteeing them the health care they have earned. Through "Medicare For All Who Want It," we can make sure that every veteran has access to quality and affordable care. It's also long past time we streamline and modernize the chronically understaffed Veterans Affairs Department. So we should implement an electronic health system responsive to the real needs of veterans and establish a White House coordinator to work with VA and the Defense Department to eliminate confusing and duplicative paperwork.

We need to reach out to rural and aging veterans, and extend Vietnam veterans the respect and care too many were denied when they came home. Instead of locking up veterans who commit nonviolent crimes, let's build on the success of veteran treatment courts in Reno and Las Vegas that have dramatically reduced recidivism. And with 20 veterans and active-duty service members dying by suicide every day, we must devote every available resource to address the epidemic of veteran suicide.

Third, we must ensure returning veterans and their families have every opportunity to thrive, from cracking down on predatory lending targeted at veterans to ending veterans homelessness through innovative programs like Veterans Village. Nevada's 23,000 veteran-owned businesses rank second in the nation in sales, and we should expand the Small Business Administration's Boots to Business program to encourage even more entrepreneurship among veterans.

But this cannot be the work of government alone. We need to enlist every American to ensure that our returning warriors and their families can find purpose and belonging in their communities. It's something we've seen in South Bend, where we were one of three communities to pilot the nationwide Veterans Community Connections program. Local volunteers help anyone coming off active duty navigate their way around our community. Not just finding a job, but a good dentist, haircut or soccer lesson for their kid. And when our communities embrace veterans, veterans enrich our communities. From responding to natural disasters, to starting small businesses, to running for elected office, America's veterans prove every day that they are not problems to be solved, but talent to be competed for.

When we encounter veterans, we often reflexively offer a "Thank you for your service." It is time we express our nation's gratitude not only in our words but in our actions.

Pete Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend, Ind., and is a Democratic candidate for president.