With the approaching elections, the focus of National Commander James E. Koutz’ address to the National Executive Committee was fitting: veterans must have a voice in Washington and the issues affecting them must be addressed.
In his remarks at the first session of the Fall Meetings today in Indianapolis, Koutz stressed the importance of ensuring all servicemembers have access to absentee voting ballots and that those ballots be correctly counted when cast.
Specifically, Koutz referenced a Military Voter Protection Project study that found absentee ballot requests from servicemembers are down 70 percent from the 2008 elections. Compounding the problem are studies that have found that in the previous two election cycles possibly only a third to a half of military absentee ballots were actually counted.
Koutz called these problems "absolutely unacceptable."
"Now we all know that our military is not to engage in politics, but to me it is unconscionable that public officials are not making it as easy as possible for military members to vote," Koutz said, "Voting is not a political act. It’s an act of citizenship."
To ensure that military voter turnout is better than in the previous elections, Koutz said DoD should increase its efforts to send and receive electronic ballots, and most importantly never discard a ballot because of a "bureaucratic technicality."
He called on all those present at the meeting to return to their home departments and let their state representatives know of their concerns about military voting.
"It is up to all of us to remind Legion family members in our home departments how important it is for all of us to engage in this process," Koutz said. "We are all about service, and voting is one of the most important services that we can render as citizens."
Koutz also touched on two other legislative priorities that stand to affect veterans when they go to polls next month: defense budget sequestration - and its potential impact on DoD aid and current war-fighting capabilities - and VA’s claims backlog, which is currently estimated at approximately 1 million. The message from Koutz was simple: "We need to break the back of the backlog."
"When you have almost 1 million veterans waiting for their claims to be resolved, you better hire more staff," Koutz said. "And here’s another idea, make sure that the additional staff that you hire are mostly veterans."
His message was equally urgent when addressing sequestration, which could cut DoD spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, impairing both the economy and national security, should Congress fail to design a plan to reduce the federal budget by Jan. 2.
Should sequestration not be diverted by the deadline date, Koutz warned, citing a George Mason study, that the trickle-down effect of the preventive measure could cause a loss of 2.1 million jobs and add 1.5 percentage points to the unemployment figure.
"Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called sequestration, ‘a crazy doomsday scenario’," Koutz said. "I was at a meeting with the Secretary on Oct. 1 in which he said, ‘We must be able to deal with every threat out there.’ I couldn’t agree more. And sequestration is a very real domestic threat that makes our troops and our nation more vulnerable.
"It must not happen."
Koutz also took time to praise the Legion’s national programs, particularly Operation Comfort Warriors, which is his primary fundraising project. His goal is to raise $500,000 for OCW this year. With donations pouring in from posts and departments - like the Department of Indiana’s recent $32,000 donation - Koutz expressed optimism about reaching $500,000. Still, he gave a call of action to Legionnaires everywhere to spread the word about OCW and the value of a donation to it.
"You can be certain that when you donate a dollar to OCW, every cent goes to helping wounded, injured or ill veterans – not to pay salaries or fund some fancy public relations firm," he said.
To close his remarks, Koutz discussed another future goal for the organization - reaching an all-time high in membership by 2019, the Legion’s centennial. He said the key to making that achievement a reality is not only finding new members but keeping existing ones.
"(Membership) means engaging new members so they don’t exit out the door during renewal time," he said. "It means reconnecting with your local military bases, reserve units and National Guard. It means welcome home celebrations and Blue Star Salutes.
"It means running a strong PR program within your departments so the communities can be aware of all of the great things your posts are doing every day but nobody seems to know about."