“These are America’s best and they deserve ours, but America’s veterans are not always getting it.”
My father was a quartermaster in the U.S. Navy During World War II. He served aboard the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Bon Homme Richard and saw combat in the Pacific.
When my father came home from the war, he was returning to a nation that was both eager and ready to help. President Roosevelt understood that re-adjusting millions of veterans to civilian life after the war would be no easy task, so he began preparations well in advance. These efforts culminated in his signing of the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, often referred to as the “G.I. Bill.” It guaranteed veterans a range of educational, housing, unemployment, and medical benefits.
Unfortunately, the picture is very different for returning veterans today. While our nation is all too eager to thank them with words, we’re not nearly as prepared to act. Unlike President Roosevelt, who understood the importance of long-term thinking, our leaders didn’t have a plan in place to support veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As a result, veterans today are facing many serious challenges with medical care, education, employment, and homelessness. We have a moral obligation to do better.
“Nothing is more important than serving those who have served us.”
It’s an honor to serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where I’m able to make a real difference in the lives of our veterans who have given so much in service to their country. Working across the aisle, we’ve made real progress on improving mental health and access to resources for veterans across the country.
Healthcare and mental health
We’re all familiar with the scandals of 2014 where it was revealed that veterans were dying waiting in line for care, and VA officials were falsifying records saying that people were being treated when they were not. In response, Congress created the Veterans Choice program.
Under the Veterans Choice Program, veterans are allowed to seek care from outside providers if their wait time for an appointment is more than 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles from the closest VA facility. Many people in Allegany and Garrett counties live more than 40 miles from the closest VA hospital.
Unfortunately, the program has suffered from budget shortfall and the rules have left many veterans who need outside care unable to receive it. Furthermore, it was never intended to be a permanent fix to the problem. Congress needs to pass real reform that fixes the underlying problems at the VA so that it can deliver the excellent care that it once did.
We especially need to focus on mental health and traumatic brain injuries. It’s estimated that around 300,000 servicemembers have sustained TBI since the year 2000. About 22% of people who served in Afghanistan and Iraq returned with TBI compared to 12% in Vietnam.
“The only acceptable number of homeless veterans is zero.”
TBI and other disabilities are also major contributing factors to veteran homelessness. After 9/11 our leaders failed to anticipate this problem and prepare for it. By 2009 there were about 500,000 homeless veterans. But the VA that year was only serving 92,000 of those. In response to these alarming numbers, President Obama set an ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.
While his administration made great strides, reducing veteran homelessness 50% by 2016, the goal remains unmet.
Many cities and counties have made commitments to end veteran homelessness – Montgomery County is among them. We need more municipalities to step up and more resources from the federal government to support them. The only acceptable number of homeless veterans is zero.
We need to provide veterans the flexibility that they need to finish their degrees.
Education is another area where our leaders failed to anticipate the needs of today’s veterans. Tuition costs have risen dramatically in recent years and benefits were not being adjusted accordingly. In 2000 some veterans were finding that the G.I. Bill now only covered 1/10th of their education costs.
Congress finally took action in 2008 by passing the post-9/11 G.I. Bill which brings tuition benefits in line with today’s costs. But many veterans still don’t have the resources or support that they need to finish school.
Veterans are nontraditional students and we need to do more to support their needs. My company has a program that allows our employees to earn a four-year degree at company expense. All of the coursework in the program is done online. Most of the people who take advantage of it are older than a typical college student and all are working full time to support themselves. The online courses give them the flexibility needed to complete their degree. We need to look at options like this to give veterans the flexibility that they need to finish their degrees.
We need to incentivize employers to hire veterans and educate them on the valuable skills that they provide to the workforce.
Employment has also been a challenge for post-9/11 veterans. At the beginning of 2011 post-9/11 veterans were over 50% more likely to be unemployed than the overall workforce. Progress has been made since then and post-9/11 veteran unemployment has fallen to levels comparable to civilian unemployment.
But underemployment remains a serious issue. Today’s jobs require more skills and education than ever before. Veterans can be at a disadvantage because while they are serving our country, they’re missing out on opportunities to get the education and skills needed to advance in the civilian workforce.
Compounding the problem, employers are far less likely to understand the needs of military veterans because they are less likely to have served themselves. In my father’s generation, 12% of the population served in the armed forces. Almost everyone either served or had friends and family who served. Today less than 1% serve in the military.
We need to do more to incentivize employers to hire veterans and educate them on the skills that veterans can provide to their workforce.
“Thank you for your service” must be more than words. Governments at all levels, the private sector, and nonprofits all need to step up to find and implement solutions. It’s imperative that we fulfill our commitment to serve those who have served us.