Quil Lawrence

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The presidential race is, a lot of times, about stump speeches, polls and accusations. It is also about ideas and policy.

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Four years ago, Jason Brezler sent an urgent message to a fellow Marine in Afghanistan, warning him about a threat. The warning wasn't heeded, and two weeks later, three U.S. troops were dead.

Now the Marine Corps is trying to kick out Maj. Brezler because the warning used classified information.

Solving a problem

Jason Brezler never thought he'd make a career out of the Marine Corps — his family history was FDNY.

"My grandfather was a firefighter, my father was a firefighter and fire chief," he says.

Stephen Coning, a 26-year-old former Marine, took his own life this summer, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old son.

By chance, it was the same week the Department of Veterans Affairs released conclusive data showing that the rate of suicide for those who served is now much higher than for civilians.

Despite that connection, the VA does not presume all suicides to be "service connected."

Every war has its literature. Usually the books come years after the guns go silent, but the post-Sept. 11 wars are now the longest in U.S. history, and with no clear end in sight, a growing cadre of veterans is writing fiction about them. Their stories about Iraq and Afghanistan don't have Hollywood gunfights, and they aren't action thrillers.

Donald Trump picked a military town — Virginia Beach, Va. — to give a speech Monday on how he would go about overhauling the Department of Veterans Affairs if elected.

He blamed the Obama administration for a string of scandals at the VA during the past two years, and claimed that his rival, Hillary Clinton, has downplayed the problems and won't fix them.

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When clinical psychiatrist Cher Morrow-Bradley and other health care providers call the Veterans Choice program, they are greeted with a recorded, 90-second "thank you" from Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald.

It's not having the intended effect.

"Why don't you make this easier? The process is so cumbersome, and I have to listen to you thanking me for spending all this time and then I get put on hold," says Morrow-Bradley, adding that she hasn't figured out how to skip the message.

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In 2009, Emily Vorland went to Iraq with the Army for a year, hoping it would lead to a career in special operations. That dream was derailed not by the enemy, but by a superior officer, who started sexually harassing her.

"I said no and then reported it. And my direct chain of command relieved him of his position. However, it was three months later when the retaliation started," she says.

NPR — together with member stations from across the country — has been reporting on troubles with the Veterans Choice program, a $10 billion plan created by Congress two years ago to squash long wait times veterans were encountering when going to see a doctor. But as we reported in March, this fix needs a fix.

Many veterans are still waiting to see a doctor.

Last winter, a retired Brooklyn firefighter drove down to Walter Reed Hospital, outside Washington, D.C., with what he considers holy artifacts: a bucket full of scraps from the World Trade Center.

"It's remarkable, the pieces of steel that we have. They're so important and you don't want to waste anything," said Danny Prince, who is also a Navy veteran.

Steve Danyluk, a former Marine combat pilot met Prince in Maryland and took on his cargo. Danyluk, another veteran activist, wanted to turn the steel into a symbol with the power to save the lives of veterans.

Stacy Bannerman didn't recognize her husband after he returned from his second tour in Iraq.

"The man I had married was not the man that came back from war," she says.

Bannerman's husband, a former National Guardsman, had been in combat and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He behaved in ways she had never expected, and one day, he tried to strangle her.

"I had been with this man for 11 years at that point, and there had never been anything like this before," Bannerman said. "I was so furious and so afraid."

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The fix is broken.

Two years ago Congress created the Veterans Choice Program after scandals revealed that some veterans were waiting months to get essential medical care. The $10 billion program was designed to get veterans care quickly by letting them choose a doctor outside the VA system. Now Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are pushing through new legislation to fix the program.

Midway through Matt Keil's second deployment in Iraq, he came home and married his fiancee, Tracy, in 2007.

He had two weeks R&R; no time for a honeymoon.

Before he went back to war the couple had the sort of conversation unique to newlyweds in the military. "I told her if you get a phone call that I'm injured, I'm probably fine," Matt says. "But if they come to the apartment or to your work in person, then I'm dead."

During World War II, thousands of Americans lied about their age to enlist in the military. During the Iraq war, Daniel Torres lied about something else.

"I didn't want to be just another Mexican living in the U.S. I wanted to say I'd done something for the country," said Torres.

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The number of military veterans in the country's jails and prisons continues to drop, a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.

It's the first government report that includes significant numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the findings defy stereotypes that returning war veterans are prone to crime.

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At the county court in Waukesha, Wis., in September, Iraq veteran David Carlson sat before a judge hoping he hadn't run out of second chances.

The judge read out his record: drugs, drunken driving, stealing booze while on parole, battery while in prison. Then the judge listed an almost equal number of previous opportunities he'd had at treatment or early release.

Carlson faced as much as six more years on lockdown — or the judge could give him time served and release him to a veterans treatment program instead.

The judge's tone was not encouraging.

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After his son died fighting in Afghanistan, Phil Schmidt became a walking memorial.

"At the age of 52, I got my first tattoo. So I've got a total of five of em, and I'm not done," says Schmidt, who lives in New Mexico.

Schmidt has tattoos of his son Jonathan's face, and of his son's medals, and the date that he fell in combat, Sept. 1, 2012.

Jonathan Schmidt should have been coming home from Afghanistan that month. Instead two Army officers arrived at Schmidt's home bearing the news that Jonathan had died in a firefight.

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In 2009, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki declared that all homeless veterans would have housing by year's end. New Orleans has made huge strides towards ending veteran homelessness in the city. (This story first aired on August 4, 2015 on All Things Considered.)

This is a tale of two cities. In New Orleans, there are signs of hope that veteran homelessness can be solved. But Los Angeles presents a very different picture.

Under the deafening highway noise of the Pontchartrain Expressway in central city New Orleans, Ronald Engberson, 54, beds down for the night. Engberson got out of the Marines in 1979, plagued even back then by problems with drugs and alcohol. He says that's mostly the reason he's been homeless the past 10 years.

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