The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Dec. 4, which will still need to be reconciled with the House version. A final vote in both chambers is expected before Christmas.
A key amendment, strongly endorsed by The American Legion, is the Haven Act. The act would create a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pilot program to give grants to nonprofit organizations – such as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together - to rehabilitate and modify homes of low-income veterans and veterans with disabilities. Under the bill, the nonprofit organizations that receive funding would be encouraged to collaborate with veterans service organizations like The American Legion to locate veterans and provide them the assistance they need with their homes.
The housing pilot program also would help augment existing programs like VA's Specially Adaptive Housing program and housing assistance programs administered by HUD.
Nonprofit organizations could pool their resources with these federal housing assistance programs and affect a larger population of veterans who need assistance with their homes.
The bill also authorizes $631 billion in spending for defense. It would provide $526 billion for the base defense budget, $17 billion for defense programs in the Energy Department and about $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan.
Program requests approved by the Senate include:
• An across-the-board pay raise of 1.7 percent for all military personnel.
• $9.1 billion for continued development of the F-35 fighter, including $6.1 billion for procurement of 29 of the planes.
• Multi-year procurement of 10 additional DDG-51 (Arleigh Burke-class) destroyers.
• Additional funding for procurement of a second Virginia-class attack submarine.
In other news:
Legion challenges VA paperless transition: Richard Dumancas, The American Legion's deputy director for claims, testified at the Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Dec. 4. The hearing explored the challenges faced by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as it moves toward a paperless office environment as the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) continues to roll out over the course of the coming year.
Dumancas' testimony centered on three chief concerns VA&R staff and resolutions have identified with the transformation to the electronic operating environment:
• VA&R staff have identified that at the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) sites that deal with transitioning disabled service members, there is no current scanning contract in place, therefore claims may be backing up and presenting a future backlog. Getting accurate data into the system is critical for an operating environment designed to take advantage of technology's ability to sift and process data. Alan Bozeman, VA's director of VBMS, said that VA is working to implement a plan to make sure the data flow is uninterrupted.
• There continues to be a problematic data flow with records for members of the National Guard and Reserve. The American Legion was the leading voice in addressing this concern. Despite over a decade of heavy reliance on Guard and Reserve service members to meet the security needs of the country, often these records are not centralized and can be spread over a half a dozen different locations or more. The Legion called speeding up implementation of Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) between VA and DOD and to ensure that Guard and Reserve component records will be fully integrated into that system.
• The Legion noted that VA already has many regulations on the books that address missing or lost records, but the implementation of those rules at the Regional Office (RO) level is uneven. The Legion called on VA to increase training on topics such as these regulations, and to overall improve standardization across ROs to ensure a veteran receives the same high quality treatment for their claims regardless of where in the country they live.
Homeless update: By the end of December, HUD and VA will release new homeless veterans numbers through the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Also, the point-in-time count is scheduled for late January. Please note: HUD and VA are always in need of volunteers for this important count. A significant portion of the funding awarded to local communities to combat homelessness is based upon this point-in-time count.
Veterans hired: The Economic Division along with members of D.C. Post 1 and staff from the National Auxiliary office, participated in the Hiring our Heroes Jobs Fair at the Washington Nationals Park. This event was sponsored by Military Bowl and Capital One, and hosted by the Washington Nationals. The event fielded 87 employers, 15 service providers and 407 veteran jobseekers attended. Overall, there were 2,274 resumes accepted, 249 interviews conducted, 53 tentative job offers and 37 on the spot hires.
Documentary film: The Economic Division participated in a documentary film called Reconstructing the Dream, which is about the growing skills gap and the need for our higher education system to change to prepare Americans for the 21st century workforce. The American Legion's contribution to the film came in the form of answering questions on how can service members help narrow the nation's skills gap. The film is expected to be released in early 2013.
SWS visits: Three System Worth Saving visits were held last week. One site visit was to Chicago's Captain Lovell Medical Center, a joint DoD/VA facility, where 30 veterans attended the town hall meeting. In Fort Wayne, Ind., the visit was held due to the closure of the medical center's inpatient facility. About 40 veterans attended that event. About eight veterans attended the third SWS visit, held in Fargo, N.D.
Missing soldier identified: The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Army Sgt. John R. Jones, 22, of Louisville, Ky., was to be buried Dec. 6, in Arlington National Cemetery. On June 4, 1971, Jones was part of a U.S. team working with indigenous commandos to defend a radio-relay base, known as Hickory Hill, in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. When enemy forces attacked the site, Jones and another serviceman took up a defensive position in a nearby bunker. The following morning, Jones was reportedly killed by enemy fire and the other soldier was captured and held as a POW until 1973. For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for missing Americans, call (703) 699-1169 or visit the DPMO Web site at www.dtic.mil/dpmo .