American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger told members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs Wednesday that this is a "crucial threshold in history" with more than 1.2 million service members soon to discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces and enter civilian lives, expecting the support they earned and deserve.
"I call this a crucial threshold in our nation's history because today's veterans are coming home, looking to their elected leaders in Washington for fulfillment of responsibilities befitting their military sacrifices," Dellinger said in the joint session of lawmakers as hundreds of members of the nation's largest veterans service organization took to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional delegations from their states as part of the 54th American Legion Washington Conference.
High on the Legion's legislative agenda, Dellinger explained, are smooth transitions for those entering the veteran ranks, including better VA claims-adjudication, improved mental health care and assurances that military retirees and veterans will not be asked to sacrifice benefits as the budget cuts of sequestration are imposed.
"It's our job in The American Legion – and yours, in Congress to ease the burden of their transitions," Dellinger said. "As our troops come home from Afghanistan and other duty stations around the world, the job we share – this moral and legal obligation – can only be expected to grow more challenging, and more important in the years to come. More than 1.2 million service men and women are expected to discharge from military service over the next four years (and) we must be prepared."
Dellinger warned of the potential dangers of sequestration, not only for military retirees and veterans but for national security. "I want to make it clear that veterans fully appreciate the difficulty of our nation's current fiscal condition," he said. "However, as former service men and
women, we will not stand by and watch today's budget problems weaken tomorrow's ability to defend and protect our nation. Nor will we allow the drastic cuts of sequestration to become an excuse to cut or reduce VA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) services."
Dellinger then addressed the VA backlog "of undecided benefits claims, including an adjudication process that The American Legion has often found to be rife with errors and inconsistencies depending on which regional office is handling the veteran's claim." Dellinger outlined steps his organization has taken to assist VA in identifying and correcting problems, along with recommendations for improvement. "One step in the right direction would be electronic medical health records that would follow a service member from day of enlistment through the end of life," he said, referring to a joint DoD-VA system that would reduce the information-gathering burden on veterans applying for benefits.
"Mental health is another chief concern," Dellinger continued. "The ability to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder has greatly improved for this generation, but treatment and care for veterans who suffer with PTSD has not." Dellinger again detailed The American Legion's advocacy on behalf of veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI "or from Military Sexual Trauma. (These) have to stay at the top of our priority list for as long as it takes.
"As this new wave of veterans comes home, we must also keep working to improve access to health-care facilities, whether they live in urban areas or rural."
Dellinger concluded his remarks with a reminder of The American Legion's role in helping service members and veterans make transitions. "Through nearly 14,000 local posts in communities worldwide, along with a fast-growing digital media presence, The American Legion is the nation's largest voice of today's veterans. We have listened to the needs and expectations of those who served, and of their families. We know that today's veterans want education, employment, adequate housing, timely benefits and decent health care. Not only were such benefits promised from the day they enlisted, they are a small price for our nation to pay for the freedom and safety we enjoy."