As the federal government deals with a trillion dollar budget deficit, many difficult spending and reduction decisions will need to be made. And while The American Legion completely understands this predicament, it doesn't want those decisions to strip away or pare down benefits that America's veterans truly have earned.
National Commander Fang A. Wong presented that message during a Wednesday hearing in front of a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees. Wong presented the Legion's legislative priorities during the hearing, focusing on veterans employment, the Department of Veterans Affairs' claims backlog, and the treatment of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
But before he finished, Wong made it clear the Legion's stance on dealing with the budget crisis.
"The American Legion understands the financial challenges our nation now faces," he said. "The Legion understands that tough spending decisions are coming. That is why the Legion greatly appreciates the assurances our veterans have been given - from members of Congress, (VA Secretary Eric Shinseki) and the president himself at our national convention - that benefits earned by those who've served our country in uniform won't be sacrificed to achieve budget goals. Our veterans have sacrificed enough. They have paid in full their debt to society. However, the debt society owes them is quite another matter, and it's a matter that The American Legion strongly believes this committee is willing to address."
Wong said Congress needs to pass the Military Construction and VA Appropriations measure by Oct. 1 to assure a seamless transmission of benefits to veterans. "Don't condemn VA to another round of uncertainty through a series of continuing resolutions," Wong said. "You are so close to the finish line. Help start this fiscal year off on the right foot for veterans."
Wong spoke at length about the job crisis facing the country's veterans - a figure of more than 1 million veterans without employment, including 632,000, ages 35-60. Congress can pass legislation creating incentives to promote the hiring of veterans to help reduce those figures. "Civilian licensing agencies must recognize military training, education and experience when a veteran transitions to the civilian workforce," Wong said. "A soldier who drives a truck in a convoy through hazardous routes in Iraq can drive a truck to get eggs to market on time in the American Midwest. A Navy corpsman who saved Marines on the battlefields of Afghanistan has the skills to render emergency aid as an EMT back home. Yet the education, training and experience garnered from military service is not recognized by civilian licensing and certification agencies.
"The American Legion urges Congress to work with DoD, the Department of Labor and VA to find a way to translate these skills and put these veterans to work where they can make an impact. They have already proven they know how to do these things. Give them a chance to use these valuable capabilities in the workplace."
Wong said a key to turning around the unemployment crisis is a stronger effort by the federal government to hire veterans. "Eighty percent of veterans employed by the federal government are employed by one of three departments - Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs," he said. "Surely there are other areas where veterans can be key contributors. Like the civilian workplace, federal employers need to realize the military prepares people to be team players, top-notch planners and winners. We need to stop asking why the Departments of Education, the Interior, or Energy would hire a veteran and start asking ‘why not?' If we're going to show America's private employers that a veteran has the job skills to succeed in any environment, the government needs to set the example."
But, Wong said, the private sector must also be involved. He praised Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee, as well as her House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., for legislation they've advanced that provide incentives for hiring veterans.
"The American Legion hopes you will collaborate and bring your parties together to get a jobs bill for America's veterans passed," Wong said. "It is our obligation as a nation to ensure that every single member of the military who chooses to leave the military can effectively transfer his or her education, training and experience into a civilian career field."
Wong also addressed a VA claims backlog of more than 1 million that leaves many veterans footing the bill for their medication or treatment. "Some are forced to choose between medication and food on the table," he said. "Some go into massive debt while waiting for VA to rule; even a retroactive settlement can't repair a credit history or return a home lost through a mortgage default."
Accuracy, Wong said, is the only way to shrink the backlog. "Unfortunately, VA still is using speed as the primary measurement of success," he said. "But as we all know, when we rush, we make errors. Who pays the price when errors are made in this instance? I'll tell you who: the veteran, who may see a claims process go from nine months to five years because of one error.
"VA needs to develop a better mechanism for tracking errors, and it needs to use the knowledge of those errors to make a better training system. Everyone makes mistakes; the key is the ability to learn from those mistakes and avoid them in the future. VA and others will complain that training time takes away from time spent working on claims, but do you want somebody working on those claims if they don't know how to do it right?"
A key to reducing the backlog, Wong said, is VA and DoD getting back on track with the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record. "The GAO report last February that highlighted severe problems with implementation is troubling to The American Legion, which has been promised more seamless transitions for years," he said. "The VLER needs to be a coordinated effort, with frequent and clear lines of communication, to be effective. "
Wong also briefed the committee on the Legion's ad-hoc committee on PTS and TBI, which has met several times and heard from national experts on mental health, and military, VA and private-sector specialists to consider new strategies to meet the needs of veterans suffering from either condition.
"If this American Legion committee has learned one thing, it's that there is no magic bullet for curing post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and if the treatment works, regardless of what the treatment is, it should be used to help the suffering veteran," Wong said. "Prescriptions are not always the only answer, and sometimes, drugs only make the condition worse, especially if they are drugs issued under a ‘fail first' philosophy when medical science is absolutely sure of the efficiency of other drugs.
"Other options need to be explored. And the cost of researching and implementing those options shouldn't be an issue. The toll of war does not end at discharge. For those who are disabled, physically or mentally, it is a lifelong engagement."
For video highlights of the hearing, click here.
For a transcript of the hearing, as well as the Legion's written testimony, click here.