Veterans can revive our economy

Let’s turn back the clock to a pivotal moment in American history. World War II was winding down. Millions of young veterans were coming home from the great theaters in Europe and Asia. Many of them entered service as their family farms were failing. Foreclosures were rampant, and jobs were scarce. America had yet to recover from the Great Depression. During the war, families rationed food, gas, metal and other materials for the effort, maintaining vigilance and austerity.The first generation of Legionnaires had a masterful plan to absorb the shock of so many veterans re-entering the civilian economy. They pushed through a GI Bill of Rights that sent millions to college, made home ownership affordable and offered job-training initiatives that replaced uncertainty with prosperity. Around the same time, another measure to help bridge the economic gap between war and peace was passed: the Veterans Preference Hiring Act of 1944.The spirit behind that law was clear. Those who risked their lives in uniform for our nation deserved a better shot than others at getting jobs in the federal government. In practical terms, that means veterans were to receive bonus points when their applications were graded for positions in federal agencies or offices.We all know what the GI Bill meant for the U.S. economy. It fueled a half-century of growth and created the middle class. And while it has needed updating at times, it remains a prominent reason for joining the military and a viable contributor to the U.S. economy.Not so with the Veterans Preference Hiring Act. It disturbs me to hear that only about 30 percent of the Department of Veterans Affairs work force is composed of veteran employees. At a time when veteran unemployment is outpacing that of the general population, the U.S. government must do a better job of fulfilling the spirit of the Veterans Preference Hiring Act. The percentage of veterans working at VA should be 75, not 30. Likewise, laws that require just 3 percent of U.S. government contracts to be awarded to disabled-veteran-owned businesses can no longer be ignored, as they currently are.There are many reasons for the breakdown. Foremost is communication. Veterans are not adequately notified about job or contract opportunities available in the federal government. Some agencies have failed to publicize job opportunities, as required by law, that could be fulfilled by veterans. Contract procurement is too great a mystery for too many veterans. In today’s environment of instant mass communication, there is no reason veterans should be left in the dark about opportunities.The American Legion testified before Congress in May that programs must be provided to better train veterans for government employment, and to reach out on contract procurement. Obama has established task forces to close these gaps. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has made economic recovery – particularly for homeless veterans – among his highest priorities. And I have created a special American Legion committee to accelerate the effort – as partners, not adversaries – to help bring the federal government into compliance with its own laws and finally fulfill the spirit behind them.