Obama signs veteran-friendly bills

As the 113th Congress began its session, President Barack Obama signed three bills benefitting veterans that the previous Congress approved late in its term. Details of the legislation, signed Jan. 10:

Education opportunities: Obama signed into law H.R. 4057, the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012. It was, in part, Legion lobbying that helped usher the measure through both houses of Congress and onto the president's desk. This legislation will improve the ability of GI Bill users to choose the school that best meets their educational needs. It would:

  • Require the VA to create a comprehensive policy that would meet this goal by informing veterans about their eligibility for educational counseling by creating a centralized complaint database on schools.
  • Require state-approving agencies to better communicate with accrediting agencies.
  • Require VA to link to certain performance-related data points on the College Navigator and other similar websites.
  • Identify software that would assist students in choosing a school and software that would evaluate their readiness to attend postsecondary education.
  • Require states to take military training into account in awarding licenses to work as medical technicians and other trades, thus speeding up servicemembers' transition to civilian life.

Burn pit registry: Obama approved legislation that requires Veterans Affairs to establish a registry for troops and veterans who lived and worked near open-air burn pits used to dispose of waste in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas.

In addition to including new requirements for providing a casket or urn for veterans with no known next of kin and establishing care for a military cemetery in the Philippines, the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans Benefits Improvement Act, S. 3202, aims to pinpoint the number of veterans who may have been exposed to burn-pit smoke so VA can track their medical histories and keep them apprised of new treatments.

Veterans advocacy groups and families of servicemembers who have become ill since their deployments hailed passage of the law as a victory.

“It validates the truth behind every death, every illness associated with exposure,” said Rosie Lopez-Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360 and wife of former Army Capt. LeRoy Torres, who developed a rare lung disorder known as constrictive bronchiolitis after serving in Iraq.

VA said Thursday it will announce directions for signing up when the registry becomes available.

Veterans cemetery: The president signed S. 2320, a bill titled Remembering America's Forgotten Veterans Cemetery Act of 2012. This measure treats Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Republic of the Philippines as a permanent military cemetery in a foreign country. It is associated with the former Clark Air Base, which closed in 1991. The cemetery will be administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The bill further directs the commission to restore, operate and maintain the cemetery in cooperation with the government of the Republic of the Philippines.

In other news:
Jobless rate: The national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, as of December 2012. For Iraq war veterans, the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent. The jobless rate for Iraq war women veterans is 15.7 percent (up from last month of 12.9 percent).

Credentialing update: The Department of Georgia is taking action on an Economic Commission initiative to introduce and support state legislation that would assist veterans looking to obtain their credentials in related professions.

The department has scheduled a meeting with state Rep. John Yates, Georgia Veterans Affairs Committee and the Georgia Veterans Service Board. This also shows the collaboration between The American Legion and Department of Defense when it comes to credentialing at the state level. Present at the meeting, but not limited to, will be: three past state commanders: Commissioner Pete Wheeler, Pat Phillips, and Philip Youngblood; the Department Commander of Georgia, Bill Lienhop; and National Economic Commission Chairman Harold 'Dale' Barnett.

Homeless report progress: The Senate Committee on Appropriations asked the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) to provide an assessment on the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program and of efforts to address homelessness experienced by veterans in rural communities and on Native American reservations.

In USICH's report, it credits the 17 percent reduction in homelessness among veterans since 2009 to increased collaboration between HUD and VA at the federal and local level and federal investment in innovative programs and practices for veterans experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. One of the most effective programs for veterans is the HUD-VASH program, which as of Sept. 30, has provided over 40,000 veterans with permanent supportive housing through rental vouchers provided by HUD and case management provided through VA.

The report calls for improved coordination of resources among federal agencies serving veterans in rural areas and reservations. To read the full report, go to www.usich.gov/population/veterans/report_to_congress_on_homeless_veterans/

Flag amendment: With the beginning of the 113th Congress, Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19 and House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 13 have expired, due to lack of action by either chamber. This legislation, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration, will need to be re-introduced. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

The Legislative Division will begin to find new sponsors and co-sponsors for this legislation. Please contact your representatives' and senators' offices, and ask them to become co-sponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers.

POW/MIA update: The remains of two Korean War soldiers have been identified and are returning home, according to Department of Defense releases last week:

  • Army Pfc. Ernest V. Fuqua Jr., 21, of Detroit, will be buried Jan. 15 in Rochester Hills, Mich. In late November 1950, units of the 35th Infantry Regiment and allied forces were deployed in a defensive line advancing across the Ch'ongch'on River in North Korea, when Chinese People's Volunteer Forces enemy forces attacked their position. American units sustained heavy losses as they withdrew south toward the town of Unsan. He was listed as killed in action on Nov. 28, 1950.
  • Army Pfc. Glenn S. Schoenmann, 20, of Tracy City, Tenn., will be buried Jan. 12 in Palmer, Tenn. In late November 1950, Schoenmann and elements of the 31st Regimental Combat Teams were deployed along the eastern banks of the Chosin Reservoir, in North Korea. Schoenmann was reported missing in action on Dec. 12, 1950, after his unit and U.S. positions were encircled and attacked by the Chinese People's Volunteer Forces.

For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for missing
Americans, visit the DPMO website at www.dtic.mil/dpmo

SWS visit: Last week, senior field service representative Warren Goldstein and System Worth Saving task force member Vickie Smith-Dikes conducted a SWS site visit to Tampa Bay, Fla. The visit focused on women veteran health care. The SWS team also conducted a town hall meeting for veterans, in which they discussed issues and concerns regarding their care at the Tampa Bay VA Medical Center.

Claims update: During the week ending Jan. 4, the Board of Veterans' Appeals reached dispositions on 108 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 75 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 37 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion's arguments. In 44 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran's claims that mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 23 (21.3 percent) were outright denials.