While testifying before members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs, American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said the most important part of serving the country's largest wartime veterans organization "is that I will spend the coming year personally meeting with veterans and military personnel throughout the country and around the world. I will see their faces. I will hear their voices. I will bring back their messages, and I will share their concerns with you."
During his Sept. 10 testimony in Washington, D.C., Dellinger said that many of America's veterans will ask him how The American Legion plans to improve their lives. "And, inevitably, they also will ask me what Congress and VA are doing to improve their lives as well. We all have work to do, in order to provide satisfactory answers," Dellinger said.
A large part of that work will be reaching out to more veterans, informing them about the benefits they have earned through their service, and getting them enrolled into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system. Dellinger cited a VA survey that found about half of America's 22.5 million veterans are using government benefits available to them. Worse yet, the survey also showed that almost 60 percent of veterans had little or no idea that they may be eligible for VA benefits.
"I am hopeful that a newly announced information outreach campaign by VA will dramatically improve awareness among veterans and their families, and I enthusiastically offer The American Legion's support to help spread the word," Dellinger said.
Turning to veterans employment, Dellinger noted that veterans still suffer from higher unemployment than non-veterans. While the national jobless rate has gone down to just over seven percent, the rate among young male veterans is 22 percent. One way the Legion is helping veterans find employment is through a nationwide effort to improve licensing and certification, and through the recognition of military training and experience in the private sector. Some military skills are easier than others to transfer into credits toward certification, such as a commercial driver's license. Congress recognized this last year and worked with the Legion to draft the Military Commercial Driver's License Act, signed into law last October.
Other federal legislation has served veterans well who seek private-sector jobs. For example, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act and the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act.
"It's clear to us that you have heard our concerns," Dellinger told the joint committee. "We greatly appreciate all you are now doing to improve the situation on the federal level. Now, we need your leadership at the state level as we continue to work with governments and industry-agencies throughout the country to improve acceptance of military training as credit toward certification, just as the federal government has. Legislation like the Hire at Home Act can stimulate state-level efforts to recognize military training when veterans come home looking for specialized careers after separation."
As for the VA benefits claims backlog, Dellinger said the Legion is "optimistic that recent efforts to move beyond an outdated, paper-based processing system will help the secretary reach his goal of eliminating the backlog of undecided claims. But, unfortunately, accuracy remains a serious problem."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has vowed to process benefits claims with an accuracy rate of 98 percent, however, research conducted by the Legion at VA regional offices indicate that a near-perfect accuracy rate remains a distant goal. VA's internal reporting system places the rate in the 80th percentile. The Legion's Regional Office Action Review teams are finding even greater error rates, which Dellinger said is "unacceptable. And again, we all share in the obligation to correct the problem."
Dellinger noted that each year the Legion's 2,600 service officers and accredited representatives assist veterans free of charge with more than 540,000 disability claims and another 164,000 death benefit claims. They too have been processing substantially more fully developed claims (FDCs), which move through the VA system much faster because they require no further documentation.
To help VA and Congress to define and execute a solution to the backlog, Dellinger suggested that claims accuracy could be improved by modifying a VA work-credit system "that rewards processors for the raw quantity of claims they complete in a given span of time, regardless of accuracy.... The American Legion would like to see the work-credit system reformed to measure processor performance, based on the number of claims completed without errors, and in a timely manner."
Dellinger moved on to addressing the automatic budget cuts from sequestration, reminding Congress that the Legion has "not received adequate reassurance that our nation's military retirees and active-duty personnel are protected from the cuts. The specter of reduced services and increased rates for TRICARE haunts our nation's military retirees. A weaker military health-care system is not the solution to our nation's budget problems.
"The message we want you to carry to the Armed Services committees and to DoD couldn't be more clear – military retirees are veterans, too, so leave retiree benefits and TRICARE alone."
Because of sequestration, the Department of Defense (DoD) chose to cancel participation of U.S. military forces in recent ceremonies at Normandy, France, commemorating the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. As a result, Dellinger said, "World War II veterans sat quietly at ceremonies and listened to a German military band play our national anthem while French officials were openly asking, ‘Where are the Americans?' We certainly hope our nation – and our military – will be better represented in Normandy in 2014, when the invasion's 70th anniversary is recognized.
"Remembrance of Americans who gave their lives for the freedoms of others is a sacred obligation. We all share in it."
Dellinger's final topic of discussion was on the Legion's ad hoc committee on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since 2010, the ad hoc committee has worked closely with mental health experts, physicians, DoD, VA and veterans suffering from TBI/PTSD to produce findings and recommendations that can be found in the national commander's written testimony .
The Legion's TBI/PTSD ad hoc committee found that current PTSD and TBI screening and identification procedures are inadequate and existing treatment programs are lacking. "The committee recommends congressional funding and oversight, increased research and acceptance of a policy that those afflicted with PTSD or TBI be prescribed evidence-based treatments, and that only FDA-approved medications are used," Dellinger said.
The committee will continue to work toward advancing knowledge and understanding of these wartime signature wounds in effort to provide DoD, VA and Congress with evidence-based recommendations.
"Our challenge is great, and it is complicated," Dellinger concluded. "As it has for nearly a century, The American Legion stands ready to take it on, working in collaboration with Congress, VA, the White House and the veterans of our nation. To all who have sworn with their lives to protect and defend our nation, we owe the fulfillment of our shared and sacred obligation."