“Our veterans have a higher rate of unemployment, a higher rate of homelessness and a higher rate of suicide then most Americans.”

That’s GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Rick Santorum, and he’s just getting warmed up.

“I worked closely with America’s finest,” he says of his years in the U.S. Senate serving on the powerful Armed Services Committee. “And to think of our government threatening to cut their modest retirement income and health benefits is absolutely appalling to me.” The upcoming defense cuts he’s referring to, auto-triggered by the “debt supercommittee’s” failure, have been described by Obama’s own Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as “devastating.”

“When I hear officials in Washington talk about making deep cuts in our defense budget,” adds Santorum, “or not giving our soldiers the tools they need to achieve victory, it is another indication that America needs new leadership.”

Santorum, of course, wants to provide that leadership, and though current polling shows him lagging toward the back of the pack, his numbers in Iowa are climbing and he hopes for a surprise surge there, where he has campaigned hard in all 99 counties and scored the endorsement last week of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz.

Regardless of the GOP primary contest’s outcome, however, Santorum earnestly challenges his fellow presidential contenders to join him in making America’s veterans a true front-burner issue in their campaigns – and the next administration.

Santorum’s dire characterization of the vexing issues facing the nation’s military men and women is no exaggeration: The jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans is over 12 percent, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worse, as many as one in four homeless Americans are veterans, with female veterans four times more likely to end up homeless than their male counterparts. In fact, the VA estimates 6,500 homeless female veterans are currently roaming America’s streets, twice the number of the previous decade. Most tragic of all, official statistics show that an average of 18 veterans commit suicide every single day.

Driving all these disturbing trends is the numbing reality that 10,000 combat vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (equivalent to an entire division) have “flooded into VA hospitals every three months this year,” reports USA Today, elevating the numbers of warriors suffering from serious, debilitating, stress-related conditions “above 200,000 and straining resources.”

To draw attention to these and related issues, this past Saturday, just hours before the six GOP presidential candidates squared off for the evening’s debate at Iowa’s Drake University, Santorum spoke at a veterans’ forum sponsored by Veterans for a Strong America.” Also participating in the afternoon event were candidates Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and, standing in for his wife, Marcus Bachmann. (See video of the candidates’ comments here.)

One non-candidate speaker preceded Santorum – former Navy Special Ops’ Lee Booton, who made a passionate appeal to the candidates and public in attendance:

By the end of this month, some 40,000 of our troops will be returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many will have PTSD issues. And some will do what none of us fellow veterans want them to do – take their own lives.

The VA currently states that 18 veterans per day commit suicide. Even sadder, this fact reflects only 16 states of our 50 states that track military deaths.

“Since returning troops fear the stigma of asking for help,” explained Booton, referring to warriors’ reluctance to seek clinical assistance for mental-emotional traumas, “only 3 percent are coming forward. [But] who will come forward when they fear losing their security clearance? And with new federal and state laws being implemented, they may also be denied the right to own a weapon, either for hunting or for personal business use.”

Then Booton, who volunteers as Upper Midwest regional director for Patriot Outreach, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that helps traumatized warriors and family members – made his pitch. He told the candidates and audience about a disarmingly simple and effective therapy for even the most vexing stress-induced conditions, previously reported on in-depth by WND. Patriot Outreach’s challenge, he said, was to offer something that truly helps people, yet is private and allows warriors to avoid the “stigma” many associate with seeking professional help. Says Booton:

That’s why we with Patriot Outreach have come up with a proven, non-intrusive way to help our troops with PTSD recover. Our CD “Coping Strategies” is free to all troops. Over 65,000 CDs and 34,000 downloads have made a difference. We have the support of the Army chief of chaplains, the head of psychiatry at Walter Reed – and I thank the Iowa Senate and House for their recognition, and Gov. Branstad for his proclamation, proclaiming Memorial Day 2011 as “Patriot Outreach Day” in Iowa.

How well does it work? “Just because I said [it works] doesn’t matter,” conceded Booton, but – quoting one of many letters on file from soldiers using the Coping Strategies CD – “one infantry staff sergeant wrote, ‘When I returned from Afghanistan to a divorce, your CD is what helped me through it. [And] there are others in my unit that need better coping skills.'”

Santorum, who had previously met with representatives of Patriot Outreach at a Nov. 19 event at the Fort Des Moines Military Museum, said later in a press release: “I commend Patriot Outreach for your tireless efforts to bring help and healing to our veterans. Your work is invaluable. It is essential for the health of our national soul.”

Santorum finished his Dec. 10 talk to veterans with a warning over what he sees as grave dangers being brought about by the nation’s current commander in chief:

The radical Islamists are as strong now as they have been, maybe since the events of 9/11, because this president has betrayed Israel and our allies – consistently – and has aligned himself with those who seek to do us harm.

I wish it was “naïve.” But I’m not sure it is. I’m not sure the president of the United States isn’t just seeing himself as someone who’s trying to repair past grievances.

Continuing down the path of appeasing enemies and shunning friends, Santorum concluded, will result in disastrous consequences for both America and her troops:

The consequences borne by our troops continue to be hard. I know Lee [Booton] talked about this, the high operational tempo of our military, both active as well as Guard and Reserve. The consequences of that operational tempo – the consequences not just in the form of injuries and lives taken, but the mental strain and the PTSD and all sorts of types of difficulties that our veterans are having in returning – these are issues that will continue if those radical elements, particularly in that region of the world, grow and prosper.

Rejecting the view exemplified by fellow GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul that the U.S. should withdraw immediately from Iraq and Afghanistan and also end its military presence worldwide, Santorum says America doesn’t have that luxury. Isolationism will fail, he says, and great evil “will end up on our shores. And,” he predicts, “the problems our military, our men and women in uniform, are having [over there] will be visited again, here – in this country.”

Read previous story: Military praises ‘fantastic’ new post-traumatic stress therapy

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