The American Legion understands that there still is a need for financial responsibility as the United States attempts to come out of a recession. But the country's veterans shouldn't have to bear the brunt of any financial cutbacks, said newly elected National Commander Jimmie Foster in testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees on Sept. 22.
"In this time of fiscal constraint, some may question the need for the budget being approved for our nation's veterans. I am here to remind the American people that all who put on our nation's uniform make a commitment and in fact, sign a blank check payable to our country for an amount up to and including their very lives," Foster said. "That blank check includes the sacrifices willingly made by the families of veterans as their loved ones serve. Such unwavering dedication calls for equal dedication on the part of our nation to ensure that those who have sacrificed, and were willing to sacrifice so much, are also the recipients of our nation's gratitude.
"The cost of war cannot be measured totally by the price paid for munitions, equipment and standing armies. The cost of war does not stop when the shooting stops. The cost of war - and the obligation to pay for it - continues as long as a single veteran is still recovering from, or living in, his own private hell. Often our young veterans and their families must live with the effects of war for 10, 20 even 50 years after the fighting ceases. When the welcome-back parades end, and the crowds go home, these military families must live with their new reality - a reality that can only be measured in terms of what each of them personally paid to answer their country's call."
During the hearing, Foster laid out five concerns that the Legion has when it comes to the country's veterans: additional employment opportunities, the elimination of homelessness among veterans, increased access to health care; enhanced educational opportunities, and compensation and pension issues.
Enhanced Employment Opportunities. Foster told the Congressmen that having a skilled, employed veterans population was good not only for veterans, but for the country as a whole.
"Every veteran is trained in, and has demonstrated successfully, the very traits required by any employer: resourcefulness, dedication, selfless service, loyalty, and the ability to accomplish difficult and nearly impossible tasks with little or no supervision," he said. "Veterans are prepared to use the skills learned in the military, and through after-hours college education, to be valuable contributors to the economic recovery of this nation. Our service to America doesn't end when we take off our uniforms.
"Veterans are trained to work, veterans are willing to work, and yet veterans have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans. We must do something to fix this, and one place to start is ensuring that veterans have a fair shot at employment in government jobs."
Foster said that while it's a step in the right direction that the U.S. government is hiring 3.5 percent more veterans this year than last year, it's not enough. "We are concerned that the Department of Veterans Affairs, of all federal agencies, is not among the leaders. Based on our latest information, we question why VA's workforce comprises only 39 percent veterans," Foster said. "The American Legion believes that by supporting America's veterans during their reintegration into civilian life, we, in turn, strengthen America.
"While many veterans leave active duty with a skill-set that can be readily turned into civilian employment, there are those who do not. To bridge that gap between willingness and workforce, the Veterans Workforce Investment Program was created, yet it has received only $9.6 million in funding. That is barely enough to implement the program in 14 states.
"There are thousands of veterans out of work, and willing to work, but they need to enhance their technological skills first, especially for jobs that exist in the Information Age economy. The problem is clearly a lack of adequate funding in a program that could make a difference. The budget baseline for VWIP needs to be increased so that eligible veterans in all 50 states can be trained." Enhanced Educational Opportunities. Passage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill was another step in the right direction, but Foster said work still needs to be done to bring the educational benefits to where they need to be.
"With the passage and implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans are now able to attend school at no cost, receive a housing allowance, and an annual books stipend. These benefits are for those who have served after Sept. 11, 2001, and will allow those individuals to gain a college education and solid employment path," he said. "However, veterans who would like to continue their career path by attending vocational schools, apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, and possible flight training must use the Montgomery GI Bill benefits. They will receive in-state tuition, not the housing allowance nor the books stipend. Instead they receive a small financial payout to help them through this education process. This discriminates against returning veterans and their families who desire to become productive members of the workforce in the shortest amount of time.
"Life situations may preclude the time to dedicate four years to receiving a degree that does not in itself guarantee employment. The American Legion is aware of and supports pending legislation in both Houses that addresses meaningful enhancements to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. We support equivalent educational benefits for all veterans."
Eliminating Homelessness Among Veterans. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has pledged to eliminate homelessness among the veterans population by 2015. While his plan touches on many needed areas, Foster said there needs to be additional steps in dealing with the issue.
"VA's five-year plan will provide supportive services and physical and mental health care to homeless veterans. However, more must be done for homeless veterans with families, and for homeless women veterans," Foster said. "A full continuum of care - housing, employment training, and placement health care, substance abuse treatment, legal aid and follow-up case management - depends on many organizations working together to provide services and adequate funding.
"The complexity of issues affecting all homeless veterans - the extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care - as well as the fact that a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress, substance abuse, and a lack of family and social support networks, mandates that VA have additional resources allocated."
In order for this to happen, Foster said, VA's budget, "must be realistic, and the actions taken must have quantifiable results. We are not suggesting that throwing money at homelessness is the answer, but we are suggesting that the budget allocated must be realistic given the challenges faced.
"The American Legion believes that no one in this nation who wants a home and employment should be relegated to living in a box and scrounging for food. But it is especially shameful that 30 percent of the people you see in that situation everyday have worn the nation's uniform and have sacrificed for our well being. The time has come to eliminate this national disgrace." Equitable Access to Veteran Health Care. In the eyes of The American Legion, a veteran is a veteran, Foster said. But at this time, he said, "There are far too many discriminators that segment the veteran population. The American Legion at its August 2010 National Convention adopted Resolution No. 172, The GI Bill of Health. While establishing priorities for many veteran health-care issues, the resolution highlighted The American Legion's position on eligibility reform, and our opposition to prioritizing veterans by income and not service.
"Further, The American Legion feels that tying health-care eligibility to military-operation- naming conventions is confusing and can lead to a disparity in treatment for veterans."
For example, currently OIF/OEF veterans, regardless of income priority group, have available five years of VA health care for theater-related sickness or injury. However, as missions in Iraq and Afghanistan change, in the absence of amended legislation, The American Legion is concerned that returning veterans who will have faced the same threats, challenges and sacrifices, will not be entitled to the same health-care treatment. Further, veterans of Desert Storm, Operation Noble Eagle, or, for that matter, surviving World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans - many of whom are barely above the threshold of the Means Test - are also excluded.
"The American Legion believes all veterans should be able to enroll in the very system designed to meet their unique and complex health care needs. This includes full reinstatement of Priority Group 8 veterans, and authority allowing all veterans to bring their third-party insurances to VA for their care."
Compensation and Pension Issues. Foster praised VA employees for being dedicated to assisting veterans, but said the agency's issues with training and priorities need to be examined.
"The American Legion feels that with more oversight from Central Office concerning activities at regional offices to emphasize ‘quality over quantity,' (the Veterans Benefits Administration) will be able to deliver the service to veterans they deserve," Foster said. "VA has a statutory responsibility to ensure the welfare of the nation's veterans, their families and survivors. The American Legion feels that providing quality decisions on cases in a timely manner has been, and will continue to be one of VA's most difficult challenges.
"Additionally, as The American Legion has stated many times in previous testimony, the primary focus must be on completing claims correctly the first time. Claims done right the first time will not needlessly clog the system with unnecessary appeals that end up bouncing around in the system for years."
Foster said there are several steps VA can take to improve its quality. "To begin, the VA must opt for a system of crediting work that is accountable for errors. No longer should the same work credit be given whether a claim is handled properly or improperly," he said. "When there is no incentive to stress quality of work, then speed becomes the focus and crucial details are often overlooked. The American Legion has long supported a system of counting work credit that credits claims only when they have been finally adjudicated. In such a system, the incentive would shift to properly executing the claims at every step of the way.
"VA must also work to reduce needless over-development in claims. Often, veterans are automatically scheduled for examinations when the medical information needed to grant the claim is already in the file. Internal changes to the manner in which the VA confirms evidence should be closely examined."
Foster said that in addition to current pilot programs being conducted to expedite the treatment of fully developed claims, VA should place greater emphasis on expediting original claims. He also touched on the Legion's concerns regarding presumptive issues in particular for Agent Orange and tactical herbicides and post-traumatic stress.
"The American Legion fully realizes the cost associated with relaxing burden-of-proof requirements, and imposing presumptive causal associations when determining service connection. However, particularly in the case of Agent Orange, veterans have been suffering for years from diseases which were at first denied to have any connection to exposure," Foster explained. "We have reviewed the evidence used by the VA to determine presumption. The American Legion feels that the science is sound. Unfortunately, this may lead to significant costs in additional entitlements. But I ask you to remember my opening statement. Too often we consider the ‘cost of doing business' for national defense only as guns and bullets. The real cost cannot be measured in money alone, but must be measured in terms of lives altered forever. Our young veterans and their families must live with the effects of war for 10, 20, even 50 years after the shooting stops.
"The American Legion believes that regardless of cost, the right thing to do is to recognize the service connection claim of anyone who may have been exposed or been in proximity to Agent Orange, on the ground, at sea or in the air. We are obligated to pay the debt we owe to our Vietnam veterans, and we should wait no longer. We ask that there be an expeditious review and approval of Secretary Shinseki's policy and subsequent regulation for presumptive for Agent Orange."
To read Foster's submitted written testimony, click here.