The vital outreach role of veterans service organizations such as The American Legion was highlighted during a House Veterans' Affairs Committee discussion of the government's new Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) Thursday. VRAP is a major provision of the recently enacted VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. It is legislation designed to address the high unemployment rate among military veterans. VRAP targets unemployed veterans from age 35 to 60 who, if not eligible for other VA educational benefits and meet certain other criteria, can receive occupational training assistance for up to one year. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor are working in concert to roll out the program on July 1.
Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R–Fla., opened the 90-minute session with remarks directed at the sole hearing witnesses, Allison Hickey, VA Under Secretary for Benefits, and Ismael "Junior" Ortiz Jr., acting assistant secretary for the DoL's Veterans' Employment and Training Service. Miller praised the intent of VRAP and noted that since enrollment in the program opened May 15, nearly 12,000 applications had been received. But, Miller questioned the program's effectiveness and efficiency of communications and publicity within the VA and DoL and its outreach to the veterans community.
In her testimony, Hickey responded to Miller's concern. Her statement read, in part, "A comprehensive outreach program was developed to successfully launch and implement VRAP. Reaching the target population of 35- to 60-year-old unemployed veterans presents challenges. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 400,000 unemployed veterans are between 35 and 60. If VA and DoL are successful in signing up 99,000 veterans, then one in four unemployed veterans in this age range will participate in VRAP. A centralized system to identify eligible veterans does not exist. Therefore VA and DoL are working with their numerous stakeholders to reach eligible veterans."
Among those stakeholders are veterans service organizations such as The American Legion. Their role was noted subsequently when Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., asked Hickey and Ortiz if VSOs were important to their outreach efforts.
"Quite frankly, I don't go anywhere without my veterans service organizations," said Hickey. "They are our hands and feet on the ground everywhere and forward in the fight. They are critical in taking care of our veterans on all fronts, including and especially (on) the employment front. They have been helping us get the word out on VRAP."
Ortiz followed with, "Our VSOs are an extension of who were. They are our force multipliers. They're the ones who give us the outreach that we need, because they know how to touch the veteran."
In conversation after the hearing, Hickey mentioned the Legion specifically, "The American Legion is everywhere," she said. "You all can help us get that outreach out there. You all can help them know that there's a new benefit in town and it might help you in your station in life."
Information on the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) program, the Hire Heroes Act of 2011, VRAP, high-demand occupations and application procedures can be accessed by visiting www.benefits.va.gov/VOW  or calling VA National Call Center toll free at (800) 827-1000.
Veterans may also access the VRAP application online at www.ebenefits.va.gov  through eBenefits, a joint project between VA and the Department of Defense.
Veterans are also encouraged to visit one of the nearly 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers across the nation for assistance. Center locations are listed at www.servicelocator.org .