Legion testifies at Senate field hearing

William Schrier, past national vice commander of The American Legion, testified as a witness at the April 4 Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SCVA) hearing in Tacoma, Wash. He also submitted written testimony on behalf of the Legion that addressed the hearing’s topic, “Washington’s Veterans: Helping the Newest Generation Transition Home.”

The Legion’s testimony noted that mistakes were made in how America treated returning veterans from the Vietnam War, but that the country has “a groundswell of support to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” Congress “can’t pass a law to make citizens welcome veterans back home into their communities,” yet leaders of those communities can be role models for the proper treatment of men and women who have served America in uniform.

During the Vietnam era, “the public narrative of the Vietnam veteran emerged as a group of angry, alienated loners. Media portrayals over the years were negative, and a clear picture emerged that the war had destroyed a young generation of men sent to fight.” This stereotype of Vietnam War veterans persisted in popular culture, despite polls that showed 90 percent of those veterans were proud to have served in Vietnam and about 65 percent would serve there again.

The American Legion advised the SCVA that America runs the risk of creating another unfair stereotype of returning veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS), “when the vast majority of those who suffer from these hidden wounds lead normal and productive lives, dealing with their scars and adjusting as they would to any other injury.” Community leaders need to reinforce the positive realities experienced by most young veterans. “We need to actively take away the stigma of wounds such as PTS.”

Returning veterans who do suffer from PTS “must be able to expect just treatment for the wounds they suffer, be they visible or invisible.” The Legion used Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma as an example of a facility where “there has been a concerted effort to minimize these wounds, and deny veterans the treatment they deserve.” Such occurrences are not isolated. According to the Legion’s testimony, many veterans initially diagnosed with personality disorders “have been sent back for reevaluation (and) have been more properly diagnosed as PTS.”

Any veteran who believes that he or she is suffering from PTS, and has been misdiagnosed with personality disorder, is encouraged to call the Warrior and Family Hotline at (800) 984-8523.

In its testimony, the Legion noted the new Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) is being implemented by the departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). While IDES is an improvement over previous methods, its pilot program seems to have worked better than the current expanded version. The pilot program dropped disability evaluation times from an average of 500 days to about 300. Since the program has been expanded, Legion field representatives are reporting that processing times have gone up to about 410 days. “We cannot allow any successes of the pilot to be lost as the program becomes expanded nationally.”

IDES also continues to have problems with its joint evaluation process. The Legion testified that Army medical records, in particular, are creating unnecessary delays. “There is still confusion in some locations over disparities between DoD and VA evaluations, despite the use of a common model, and the overall complexity of dual adjudication continues to represent a challenge.”

Besides having to wait a long time for their disability evaluations to be processed, the Legion said returning veterans also “have to wait three to four months after discharge before seeing the first of their disability checks from VA .... There needs to be a way to close the gap for these transitioning veterans. Given the uncertain job market they will face upon discharge, maintaining some level of continuity of pay is vitally important.”

As veterans seek to enter the civilian work force, they will be helped by an improved, mandatory Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Although it’s still too early to tell how effective the new TAP will be, the Legion said early indications “point towards a great improvement in providing useful information.” Veterans will also be helped in their job searches with wider recognition of their military skills and training among civilian employers. The American Legion has been working with licensing and credentialing authorities nationwide to make it easier for returning veterans to get private-sector jobs.

Last February, the Legion co-hosted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a two-day National Credentialing Summit in Washington, D.C., where experts gathered to discuss and work on complex issues in licensing and credentialing. In its testimony, the Legion noted “the boundaries between state and federal certification can be confusing, and it is far more complicated to equalize across the states than it would appear on the surface.” Washington’s state legislature has passed a bill that allows military training and experience to satisfy equivalent requirements for civilian jobs.

The American Legion reminded SCVA that it supports the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 2239), introduced in the Senate on March 27. If enacted, the bill would allow federal agencies to grant job-related licenses to any veteran whose military training or certification satisfies “any training or certification requirements for the license.” S. 2239 would affect at least 80 licenses or credentials issued by federal agencies, and echoes the spirit of measures passed by eight other states: Utah, Washington, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

“It’s a simple fix, and long overdue,” the Legion testified, saying it was confident it could work with SCVA, the rest of Congress, and state governments to ensure “the vital skills our veterans learned in the military are translated to the civilian world. It’s the right thing to do.”

In its testimony, the Legion encouraged the country to “focus on the basic things — help welcome veterans into the community without fear; help veterans receive treatment and compensation for their wounds of war; help veterans translate their military successes into success in the civilian job market. We will be winning the fight to ensure just treatment for the brave men and women who serve us in war.”