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may/june 2008

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GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
The Time Is Right For A
New GI Bill

BY JOHN MITERKO, CHAIR, GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, WITH GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF
When Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) took office in January 2007, one of the first items on the freshman senator’s agenda was to introduce S. 22, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. Today, 16 months and three iterations later, this legislation, a true GI Bill for the 21st century, boasts strong bipartisan support with 57 co-sponsors in the Senate, including 11 Republicans. Its companion bill in the House, H.R. 5740, has 234 co-sponsors.  The bills have the endorsements of the nation’s leading veterans’ and military service organizations, with VVA one of the first to board the bandwagon.

What would this legislation accomplish if enacted into law?  Under the current veterans education benefit, the Montgomery GI Bill, active-duty service members are eligible for up to $9,600 in annual education benefits over four years. The flat payment remains the same regardless of the cost of the school, and troops have to pay into the system to reap the benefits.

S. 22 would provide Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans—indeed, any veteran who has served after Sept. 11, 2001—with up to four academic years of full, state college benefits covering room, board, and other expenses.  If veterans go to private colleges or universities, they would be covered up to what the cost would be at a state-supported school.

“I see the educational benefits in this bill,” Webb said in a statement, “as crucial to a service member’s readjustment to civilian life and as a cost of war that should receive the same priority that funding the war has received the last five years.”
Opponents of this bill claim it will cost too much. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the tab would be $2.5 billion a year.  That is the equivalent of one week’s worth of fighting in Iraq.

Some in the Pentagon worry that enactment of S.22 will hurt retention.  That is just plain wrong.  Is it better for a troop to re-up and get sent back to the meat-grinder of war than to be afforded a chance at an education and a better life?

It is our hope that by the time you read this, the Senate and the House will have passed this historic legislation, and that the President, who always speaks so highly of the troops, signs it into law.

The lead co-sponsors of S.22 are Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and John Warner (R-Va.), each a veteran.  In the House, H.R. 5740 should be credited to the efforts of Reps. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), and Peter King (R-N.Y.). Speaker Nancy Pelosi strongly backs this legislation and has spoken out repeatedly, emphasizing her absolute commitment to the principle embodied in VVA’s saying “Leave No Veteran Behind.”

Many of the student veterans who joined Sens. Reid, Webb, Warner, Akaka, Schumer, Lautenberg, and Reps. Short, Brown-Waite, and Mitchell wore “Leave No Veteran Behind” buttons.
VVA’s strong support for the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act is in accordance with VVA 2007 Convention resolutions and springs from our founding principle: Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. That the educational benefits given Vietnam veterans were a pale imitation of the original World War II GI Bill should be all the more reason to go to bat to insure that the new generation of veterans gets what we deserved but were not given. S.22 is a worthy, and much needed, bill.

EDUCATIONAL SUPPORT FOR RETURNING VETERANS
Another freshman senator, Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), introduced S. 2677, the Supporting Education for Returning Veterans Act of 2008. His bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 and authorize the Secretary of Education to provide grants to institutions of higher education to establish programs for the provision of services and support to veteran students. The original co-sponsors of this measure are the two contenders for the Democratic nomination for President, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Personnel hired under this program during and after the Vietnam War were instrumental in helping untold numbers of veterans navigate their way through the college maze, directing them to resources for help in dealing with issues that threatened to undermine their completing their studies and receiving their baccalaureate degrees.

This program delivered a very big bang for a very small buck.  We would hope that the same Senators and Representatives who believe in S.22 also will embrace S.2677.

HOW MANY HOMELESS?
Mark Twain once said, “There are lies. There are damn lies. And there are statistics.” Now, according to the VA, “The number of veterans homeless on a typical night has declined 21 percent in the past year.” Patting itself on the back, the VA credits this decrease “to the services offered by the VA and its partners in community- and faith-based organizations, plus changing demographics and improvements in survey techniques.” One wonders, then, if these “improvements in survey techniques” had come years ago, they might have lessened the numbers then.

The reduction of homeless veterans from more than 195,000 to about 154,000 was announced as Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake was elected to chair the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The reality is that we don’t know how many homeless veterans sleep in shelters, on subway grates and air-conditioning vents, in parks, under railroad trestles, or in the woods every night. For the longest time, the best estimates were that there were some 250,000 homeless veterans. The number shrunk, all of a sudden, to 195,000 on any given night a year or two ago (or a total of about 400,000 individual veterans in the course of a year).

“We are seeing significant progress in the fight against homelessness,” Peake said in a press release. “This success should encourage all those concerned about homeless veterans, for it shows we can make a difference in the lives of these veterans through our services and with our community partners.”

As Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in her opening statement of the joint hearing she chaired of two subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee that focused on solutions to help homeless veterans on May 1: “However many there are, there are certainly many tens of thousands too many veterans who end up homeless.” To see the web cast of this hearing, go to
http: //appropriations/senate.gov

The VA provides health care to about 100,000 homeless veterans and compensation and pensions to nearly 40,000 annually.  The department already has approved funding for more than 12,000 beds in transitional housing programs and provides about 5,000 veterans each year with residential services in VA hospital-based programs. Problems that result in veterans being homeless often can be solved, but it takes resources and consistent effort on the part of the VA, veterans’ organizations and service providers, and the general community.

What is left unsaid in this news release is the increase in numbers of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  These numbers are an indication of the mental turmoil that plagues many of these men and women when they return to our shores and leave the military. While helping those already homeless, we need even more to focus on prevention to help veterans before their problems become so acute that they are on the street.

DNA FROM FAMILIES OF MIAs
More than 6,300 families need to be located to collect DNA samples for the purpose of identifying missing soldiers from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, according to the Army. The military maintains a database of mitochondrial DNA samples from family members of MIAs in the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab. DNA samples help the Army identify missing soldiers’ remains when they are uncovered, so they can be returned to the families.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command continually sends anthropologists and forensic analysts to search locations identified as potential recovery sites, provided the country where the conflict took place allows access.

Mitochondrial DNA is used for identification because it can be extracted from skeletal remains, the only kind of remains coming back from conflicts that took place more than 50 years ago.

Because the mitochondrial DNA source is passed through the maternal line, the Army has to locate eligible donors from the mother’s side of the missing soldiers’ families. The DNA samples are collected through an oral swab kit that is mailed to the donor.

The Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch has launched an outreach program to try to locate more eligible donors from families of unaccounted-for soldiers from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Families with unaccounted-for soldiers, or anyone who knows a family with an unaccounted-for soldier, should contact the Past Conflict Repatriation Branch at 800-892-2490 or by email at tapscper@conus.army.mil

NUMBERS GAME ON VETERAN SUICIDE
Recent news has put a spotlight on the need for better information on the number of lives lost to suicide among the nation’s veterans. Because there are no “good” numbers concerning these suicides, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) took the initiative to shed light on how many veterans have died by suicide in the last ten years by introducing the Veterans Suicide Study Act in the Senate. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) introduced a similar bill, H.R. 4204, in the House last November.

More than 32,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States; approximately 20 percent of those individuals are veterans. Male veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die by suicide. For veterans in current crisis, help is available by calling 800-273-TALK (8255).

The Veterans Suicide Study Act will require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to coordinate research and resources with the Secretary of Defense, veterans’ service organizations, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state public health offices and veterans agencies.

The critical need for such legislation and honest reporting was only heightened by the now infamous e-mail that came to light the week of April 21 from the chief consultant for mental health that started with “SHHHH!” in regard to publicly disclosing the internal VA statistics that there were at least 18 suicides per month among veterans and at least 1,000 attempts, which is 20 times more than what was being said publicly and to the Congress.  

VOUCHERS FOR HEALTH CARE?
There are some in Congress and elsewhere who would just as soon do away with the entire Department of Veterans Affairs. “Why not just give veterans some sort of health card and let them seek healthcare services wherever they want?” they argue.

We question why some would want to destroy what is arguably the best-managed care system in the nation, one that, despite its flaws, renders generally excellent care—and in many instances specialized care that cannot be found elsewhere—and accomplishes this far less costly than the private sector does.

One presidential candidate, a former prisoner of war whose military record of courage and faith in America we hold in the highest esteem, has declared that Congress and the President “should give [America’s veterans] freedom to choose to carry their VA dollars to a provider that gives them the timely care at high quality and in the best location.”

VVA believes that this approach is headed in the wrong direction. We—not only VVA but all the VSOs—have fought too hard for too long to transform the VA into the health care provider that it has become—to the benefit of those veterans who choose to use it to meet their health care needs.

 

 

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