WASHINGTON - Former President George W. Bush has taken on the high unemployment rate of veterans this week, announcing a study at Syracuse University of how best to reintegrate service members into civilian society and asking that post-traumatic stress be classified as an "injury" not a "disorder."
"We got a problem: Too many vets are unemployed," Bush told ABC's Martha Raddatz in an interview that aired Sunday on This Week. "And there's what we call a civilian/military divide."
The George W. Bush Institute is collaborating with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University on a comprehensive survey of post-9/11 veterans that will be published in the spring.
More than a decade after sending troops into Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and after the deaths of 6,800 service members and injuries of 51,000 more, Bush told Raddatz that he had "a duty" to help the veterans.
"I'm in there with them," he said.
Raddatz has also spent significant time with the troops, detailing the war in Sadr City, Iraq, in The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family.
Bush is not the first to ask for the end of "disorder." Frank Ochberg, who edited the first textbook about treatment for the ailment and served on the committee that defined PTSD, is part of an ongoing debate about the topic, asking that the name be changed.
"[Veterans] tell us that they will feel less stigmatized," he wrote in a recent blog. "But they also explain how the concept of an injury, rather than a disorder, does justice to their experience."
Others, including Matthew Friedman, executive director of the Veterans Affairs National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, have argued that changing the name won't make people more likely to seek treatment.
But those on both sides of the debate agree that more should be done to help civilians understand the the benefits of reintegrating veterans. While the unemployment rate for veterans has dropped, from 11.7% a year ago to 7.9% in January, it's still higher than the national rate of 6.6%. Homelessness has also been a problem.
Finding civilian jobs has been difficult for combat veterans for two reasons. First, as noted by Bush earlier this week, it can be hard to translate military skills, such as infantry soldier, to a civilian equivalent. And second, after a rash of headlines about a minuscule percentage of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and becoming violent, there has been a fear that veterans won't interact well in the workplace.
Experts on post-traumatic stress disorder say veterans are much more likely to internalize their injuries by seeking solitude, just as the 1 out of 5 Americans diagnosed each year with depression do.
And Bush emphasized the qualities of early leadership, remaining stable under pressure and creative thinking that veterans often learn on the job. He mentioned the veteran appearing on the program with him, Jake Wood, who served in combat twice, and then returned home to found Team Rubican, an organization made up of veterans that reacts to disaster situations around the world.
"Those are characteristics that are hard to teach," he said of Wood's willingness to serve twice.
Earlier in the week, while announcing the study at Syracuse, Bush asked that the "D" be removed from PTSD.
"An employer says, 'I don't want to hire somebody with a disorder,' " he said. "And so our mission tomorrow is to begin to change the dialogue in the United States."
Post-traumatic stress disorder, the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a series of symptoms caused by chemical changes in the brain after a person experiences trauma. There has been a movement, several years in the making, to qualify the malady as a physical injury. Science has shown that the body goes into high alert when it is in danger - preparing to fight or flee, producing cortisol and making a person immune to basic needs, such as for food, during the threat - but doesn't always come back down from that vigilant mode. The symptoms include:
• Re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks or constant thoughts of the event
• Difficulty sleeping, irritability, anger, inability to concentrate
• Emotional numbing
VA says about 30% of people who served in combat are dealing with PTSD, but Bush said that hasn't led to self-pity.
"My spirit is always uplifted when I visit with vets," he said. "We've got a society that's incredibly comfortable and too many people saying, 'Oh, woe is me.' Not our veteran community. They say, 'What can I do to continue to serve?' "
Follow @kellyskennedy on Twitter.