Good morning, Chairman Sanders, Chairman Miller and members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.
I would like to thank Congresswoman Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth, proud Department of Virginia Legionnaire and good friend, for her kind words of introduction and unwavering support of those who have proudly served our nation in uniform.
On behalf of the 2.4 million wartime veterans who make The American Legion our nation’s largest veterans service organization, I thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning.
Before I start, I will ask the following people to please stand and be recognized:
American Legion National Officers serving with me this year
American Legion Past National Commanders in the audience
Nancy Brown-Park, National President of the American Legion Auxiliary
Joseph Gladden, National Commander of the Sons of The American Legion
Past National Presidents of the American Legion Auxiliary
And Past National Commanders of the Sons of The American Legion.
I would also like to take this opportunity to introduce and thank my wife and best friend, Margaret.
We are one American Legion Family, and we are all in this together.
As advocates for veterans and their families, we stand at a critical threshold.
More than 1.2 million U.S. service men and women in the coming four years will make the transition from active-duty service to new lives as civilian veterans – many of them greatly changed by their wartime experiences.
At the same time, millions of proud veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent military engagements are aging, and looking to us to fulfill our nation’s promises of support, in gratitude for their sacrifices.
Those sacrifices, we can all agree, have purchased the freedoms and protections that make the United States the strongest, safest and most prosperous nation on the planet.
The pre-9/11 and post-9/11 generations of veterans are equally important, and yet, in many ways, they are different. Our shared obligation to meet all of their needs is a complex challenge, and yes, we all share in the obligation to meet this challenge.
The greatest – and most important – part of serving as National Commander of The American Legion, is that I will spend the coming year personally meeting with veterans and military personnel throughout the country and around the world. I will see their faces. I will hear their voices. I will bring back their messages, and I will share their concerns with you.
Because they will ask me how The American Legion plans to improve their lives. And, inevitably, they also will ask me what Congress and VA are doing to improve their lives as well. We all have work to do, in order to provide satisfactory answers.
Case in point: a recent VA survey reveals that only about half of America’s 22.5 million veterans use the government benefits available to them. Worse yet is that the same survey showed nearly 60 percent of America’s veterans had little or no idea about VA benefits they may be eligible to receive.
I am hopeful that a newly announced information outreach campaign by VA will dramatically improve awareness among veterans and their families, and I enthusiastically offer The American Legion’s support to help spread the word.
Foremost, veterans are proud of their service, and the part they have played in elevating our nation to a position of global leadership. If the VA survey tells us one thing, it’s that veterans are not looking for handouts. And many of them are not, even, aware, of their benefits. They are simply looking for educations, careers, and the health-care services they have earned, and deserve.
Veterans also fully understand our nation’s current fiscal strain. But, as former service men and women, they are resolute that we must never let sequestration and the ongoing impasse about the federal deficit weaken our nation’s ability to defend and protect Americans, or to liberate the oppressed around the world. Veterans understand that a well-equipped military, and a reasonable quality of life for those who serve, are the foundations our nation’s strength, as we navigate our way to economic recovery.
As it was after World War II, our recovery depends on well-employed and well-educated veterans.
Strides have been made on that front. But we still have a long way to go.
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, the veteran population continues to suffer higher unemployment rates than their nonveteran peers. With the national unemployment rate declining to just over 7 percent, our young veteran males are unemployed at more than 3 times the national rate, at a whopping 22 percent.
Another disturbing statistic is that while the rest of the nation’s unemployment is declining, recently returning post 9/11 veteran unemployment has actually risen another 2 percent, and is now at 10 percent unemployed.
The American Legion has been at the forefront of efforts to combat veteran joblessness – and homelessness – and we know we have allies with you here in Congress and over at Department of Veterans Affairs, and I say again, we all share in this obligation.
One way The American Legion is confronting this issue is through a nationwide effort to improve licensing and certification for job-seeking veterans. Combat medics who patched up our wounded in Afghanistan should be fully recognized to provide similar services to civilians in their hometowns across America, EMTs who are trained by our military should not have to start the training process over again after they come home from war. That’s just doesn’t make sense.
Some military skills are easier than others to transfer into credits toward certification, like commercial drivers licensing. Congress recognized that last year and, partnered with The American Legion to draft the Military Commercial Drivers License Act, which was signed into law last October.
By no means is this a new issue.
The American Legion has a long history of working to improve transferability of military experience into certification credit for civilian career fields. In 1997, The American Legion’s STUDY OF LICENSURE AND CERTIFICATION FOR VETERANS produced data that’s still reliable today, but laws and policies to address those findings have been too slow in coming. A decade and a half after that research, only now are we starting to see results. And with progress such as the recent VOW to Hire Heroes Act, and the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act of 2012, it’s clear to us that you have heard our concerns. We greatly appreciate all you are now doing to improve the situation ON THE FEDERAL LEVEL.
Now, we need your leadership at the STATE, level as we continue to work with governments and industry-agencies throughout the country to improve acceptance of military training, as credit toward certification, just as the federal government has. Legislation like the Hire at Home Act can stimulate state-level efforts to recognize military training when veterans come home looking for specialized careers after separation.
With nearly 14 thousand local posts across the nation, The American Legion is uniquely situated and fully capable of raising awareness and building support for such improvements. We are proud to report that American Legion grassroots efforts, in collaboration with the Department of Defense, The National Governors Association, and The National Conference of State Legislatures, has produced 17 new state laws to help service members receive licensure and academic credit for military training and experience.
Some of those states are represented right here by committee members in this room. And while California has yet to pass any of these new laws, they have a number of military transferability measures now on the table, and with the support of California committee members here today, we are hopeful these state bills will soon become law.
Legionnaires and members of Congress can provide important support for another state-level issue, too – the granting of in-state tuition rates for military members, their families, and veterans, so they can maximize their GI bill benefits, complete their educations and make successful career transitions.
We especially want to thank the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Chairman Miller for his leadership on this matter, by introducing the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act.
Meanwhile, as we share in the obligation to help veterans and their families find careers worthy of their service and skill sets, another issue that has been high on The American Legion agenda for too long simply must be resolved: The backlog of undecided VA benefits claims.
When speaking to The American Legion National Convention in 2010, 2011, 2012, and again in 2013, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki declared VA would “break the back of the backlog by 2015.” He committed to a 98-percent accuracy rate, with no claim pending longer than 125 days. In the two years that followed that initial commitment, VA generally went backward, both in terms of backlog numbers and accuracy.
We are optimistic that recent efforts to move beyond an outdated, paper-based processing system will help the secretary reach his goal of eliminating the backlog of undecided claims, but unfortunately, accuracy remains a serious problem.
VA Regional Office site visits and field research conducted by The American Legion have clearly shown that the 98-percent accuracy goal is far from being met. VA has been reluctant to publicly post accuracy figures in its weekly workload reports, but their own STAR reports for accuracy place the rate in the mid-80s, and The American Legion’s Regional Office Action Review teams are finding even greater error rates as high as TWO-THIRDS of all claims reviewed.
That’s unacceptable. And again, we all share in the obligation to correct the problem.
The American Legion has around 26 hundred veteran service officers at work, right now, all across the nation helping veterans, free of charge, with VA benefits claims applications. It is a proven fact that those who use our service officers submit better-prepared applications, with reduced errors, which eliminates time-consuming demands for additional documentation before life changing adjudication decisions can be made for these veterans.
I implore VA and Congress to engage our service officers in the process to define and execute a solution to the backlog.
No one knows claims, better than American Legion service officers.
Improved accuracy is critical to speeding up the process. And The American Legion believes that the VA work-credit system that rewards processors for the raw quantity of claims they complete in a given span of time, regardless of accuracy, only leads to disputes and appeals that leave claims unresolved for months, and sometimes even years, adding to the backlog.
The American Legion would like to see the work-credit system reformed to measure, processor performance, based on the number of claims completed WITHOUT ERRORS, and in a timely manner.
When a VA benefit claim is hung up in the process, someone who served our nation in uniform is denied access to health-care services entitled them by law. Veterans are often left to wonder – “Is VA simply waiting for me to die before deciding on my claim?” And with this too, we all share in the obligation, to change that suspicion.
The American Legion also fully supports this committee, through our strong support of finally implementing a single, seamless, lifetime electronic medical record that can be accessed by DoD or VA at any time, without need for intermediary software. Congress has already appropriated billions of dollars to accomplish this important step into 21st Century technology, but the fact that we are now back to square one, quite frankly, is an embarrassment.
The American Legion is not standing idly by. As stakeholders in the VA claims process, we see our organization and, in particular, our service officers, as necessary participants in the solution. In June, The American Legion, together with the White House, Joining Forces, and VA all joined to advance the Fully Developed Claim process nationwide. And so far, that collaboration has proven very effective in the effort to bring down the backlog.
As you have seen, The American Legion is not simply going to stand back and complain about the problem. We are working every day to solve it, one veteran at a time. Every year, American Legion service officers assist veterans with more than 540 thousand disability claims and another 164 thousand death benefit claims – all at no cost to the veteran.
The American Legion takes this part of our shared obligation very seriously. Our service officers have the expertise and dedication to make a difference, and they are doing so every day.
As I meet with veterans and active-duty men and women this year, I am also certain to hear concerns about the federal budget and sequestration. Veterans have been assured by the President, and Congress, that VA will be protected from cuts. The American Legion has often asked for reassurance about this, and we have continued to receive it from Congress, especially the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs.
As these committees know very well, VA major construction is a discretionary cost. While we are pleased to see that VA is finally back in the hospital-building business where new medical centers are needed, the fact remains that the average structure is over a half-century old, out of step with modern medicine, and in serious need of major and minor construction alike. Veterans need assurance from Congress and the White House that facility needs are included among VA’s protections against sequestration.
We have also not received adequate reassurance that our nation’s military retirees and active-duty personnel are protected from the cuts.
The specter of reduced services and increased rates for TRICARE haunts our nation’s military retirees. A weaker military health-care system is not the solution to our nation’s budget problems. The message we want you to carry to the Armed Services Committees and to DOD couldn’t be more clear – military retirees are veterans, too, so leave retiree benefits and TRICARE ALONE.
Our military, our military retirees, and our veterans are symbols of this nation’s strength. Sequestration was blamed in June for a noticeable lack of U.S. military presence at the massive D-Day Anniversary commemorations in Normandy, France.
Immediate Past National Commander James Koutz was one of very few American dignitaries in Normandy to accept the gratitude of the liberated.
World War II veterans sat quietly at ceremonies and listened to a GERMAN military band play our National Anthem while French officials were openly asking, “Where are the Americans?” We certainly hope our nation – and our military – will be better represented in Normandy in 2014, when the invasion’s 70th anniversary is recognized. Remembrance of Americans who gave their lives for the freedoms of others is a sacred obligation. We all share in it.
The bottom line is this: The American Legion is calling on lawmakers to protect from the budget axe our nation’s veterans, military retirees and troops still serving during wartime. We owe it to the heroes under the grave markers at the Normandy American Cemetery, Arlington – and elsewhere around the world – to keep our military the strongest in the world, and deliver to our veterans the gratitude we owe them.
While the budget does not fall squarely on the shoulders of these committees, we urge you to work with your colleagues to find compromises necessary to set the country on a path to stability, and to ensure that the remaining 14 percent of the VA budget be included in advanced appropriations.
By doing so, we can remove some of the uncertainty among veterans and military retirees.
By doing so, we can count on the structural and infrastructure support necessary to ensure that our veterans and military health-care facilities are modern, well-maintained and located within a reasonable distance of those who need them.
And by doing so, we can meet the needs of veterans – pre-9/11 and post-9/11 – who need us now, at this critical juncture. That includes our most severely wounded. It includes those confronting PTSD and TBI. It includes women veterans who, only now, are beginning to see meaningful changes in the VA health-care system. We cannot let a dysfunctional appropriations process let these veterans down. We all share in the obligation.
Our obligation certainly must extend to the growing number of female veterans who are turning to VA and not finding the care they need.
A 2011 American Legion study revealed several areas of concern about VA health-care services for women, the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population. Approximately 1.8 million female veterans make up 8 percent of the total veteran population yet only 6 percent of those women veterans use VA health-care services.
That is expected to change as more and more female veterans are discharged from military service in the coming years. A 33 percent increase in the number of women using VA health-care facilities is expected over the next three years, and their diagnoses of PTSD are nearly 3 percent higher than PTSD diagnoses for their male counterparts.
The American Legion recommends that VA conduct a comprehensive study of military sexual trauma in conjunction with the Department of Defense to develop a better plan to address the problem. Such a study would need to fit into a comprehensive VA health-care strategy for female veterans’ that extends beyond reproductive issues. Included in that strategy would be improved provider education. Furthermore, as female veterans are the sole caregivers in many families; services and benefits designed to promote independent living for combat-injured female veterans must be evaluated, and needs such as childcare must be factored into the equation. Many female veterans cannot make it to their appointments due to the lack of child-care options at VA medical centers.
In response to our 2011 survey, The American Legion has established a new Women Veterans Outreach Program whose coordinator is tasked with identifying best practices to improve services and establish state coordinators to oversee programs for women at that level.
And finally, any discussion of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq must address what have become known as the signature wounds of those wars – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Since 2010, The American Legion’s TBI- PTSD Ad Hoc Committee has worked closely with mental-health experts, physicians, DoD, VA, and veterans suffering from these conditions to produce a list of findings and recommendations that can be found in my written testimony.
In short, the Legion committee found that current PTSD and TBI screening and identification procedures are inadequate, and existing treatment programs are lacking. The committee recommends congressional funding and oversight, increased research and acceptance of a policy that those afflicted with PTSD or TBI be prescribed evidence-based treatments, and that only FDA-approved medications are used.
The American Legion’s TBI and PTSD Ad Hoc Committee will continue to work toward advancing our knowledge and understanding of today’s signature wounds, so we can provide DoD, VA and Congress with evidence-based recommendations necessary to serve them.
Our challenge is great, and it is complicated.
As it has for nearly a century, The American Legion stands ready to take it on, working in collaboration with Congress, VA, the White House and the veterans of our nation. To all who have sworn with their lives to protect and defend our nation, we owe the fulfillment of our shared and sacred obligation.
I thank you for the opportunity to come before you to renew The American Legion’s ongoing commitment to work closely with you so we can all do what’s right for all those who have served, to whom we owe so much.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.
Now - I would like to take a second and introduce my team that is here with me today;
Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Chairman, Ralph Bozella and Director Verna Jones
Veteran Economic Commission Chairman Dale Barnett and Deputy Director Mark Walker
National Legislative Commission Chairman Brett Reistad and Director Lou Celli
Together, we will be happy to answer any question you might have for us at this time.
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