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President Obama’s Commitment to Veterans Must Remain a Second-Term Priority

Obama and troops

SOURCE: AP/ Juan Carlos Llorca

President Barack Obama speaks to troops, service members, and military families at the 1st Aviation Support Battalion Hangar at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on August 31, 2012.

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In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the men, women, and families who have carried the burdens of a decade of war. In his first term, the president made veterans care one of his top priorities. As a result, as most federal agencies grapple with austerity measures, the president’s budget request this year includes $140 billion in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs—a 40 percent increase in funding since the president took office.

Over the past four years, as the United States wound down its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has poured resources into programs intended to support service members as they transition into civilian life, focusing in particular on three critical endeavors: reducing the rates of unemployment, suicide, and homelessness in the veteran population.

Yet as the United States ends its combat mission in Afghanistan and reduces the size of its ground forces to near prewar levels, the federal government will face a growing population of new veterans. In the president’s second term, the Obama administration, along with its partners in Congress and in the private sector, must continue the progress we’ve made in supporting our men and women in uniform as they come home from war.

Unemployment

The unemployment rate for the overall veteran population, 7.6 percent as of January 2013, is actually lower than the national unemployment rate, which has hovered around 8 percent for much of the past year. But this figure masks a significantly graver employment situation for Gulf War II veterans—those who have served since 9/11. In 2010 the unemployment rate for veterans who served during one of America’s recent wars stood at 11.5 percent; in 2011 it rose to 12.1 percent.

To address this problem, the Obama administration launched a broad array of initiatives to help service members translate their skills to the civilian workforce. Chief among these programs: a redesign of the military’s Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. Once commonly known as “death by PowerPoint,” the revamped version of this program includes individual counseling and career-specific curriculum. Perhaps most significantly, under the redesigned program, transition planning will be incorporated into the entirety of a service member’s career. That is, troops will begin preparing for their postmilitary careers as soon as they enter the force.

The president also worked with Congress to pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which provides companies with a substantial tax credit if they hire unemployed or disabled veterans. Also, he used his executive authority to establish a national Veterans Job Bank and to create My Next Move, an online database that helps connect veterans with jobs that build off their military experience. Finally, the Joining Forces Initiative, headed by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, has brought in private-sector partners to secure jobs for 125,000 veterans or military spouses in 2012 alone.

The administration’s full-court press appears to be showing results. In the last quarter of 2012, unemployment among Gulf War II veterans fell to 10.3 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Yet even with these gains, too many capable and qualified veterans remain without jobs. In September 2012 Republicans in Congress blocked the passage of the president’s proposed veterans job corps. Intended to address the problem of post-9/11 veteran unemployment, the jobs bill would have hired veterans who have served since September 2011 as policemen, firefighters, and national park employees. Moreover, the $1 billion cost of the measure would have been offset through penalties on tax-delinquent Medicare providers, rendering it deficit-neutral.

Over the past decade, Congress has authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in supplemental war funding to provide our men and women in uniform the support they need while they are on the battlefield. This commitment should not end once they return home. Over the next four years, Congress should work with the president to fulfill our national commitment to the men and women who have served their country so admirably over the past decade.

Suicide, mental health, and traumatic brain injury

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that an average of 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available. The United States has a moral imperative to address the epidemic of veterans’ suicides and ensure our veterans get the care they need and earned.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to assess, track, and respond to the mental health needs of veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This new generation of veterans has served in complex environments and against uncertain adversaries, often over multiple tours of duty without sufficient time between deployments. Additionally, the prevalence of improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades, along with improvements in battlefield medical care, mean that many more veterans return home with traumatic brain injuries or other disabilities, which can increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other associated conditions.

The Obama administration has made mental health care for veterans, service members, and their families a high priority, issuing an executive order in August 2012 to improve access and increase the resources immediately available to at-risk veterans. The president’s order expanded the capacity of the Department of Veterans Affairs crisis line to ensure access to a mental health worker within 24 hours, and inaugurated a campaign to inform veterans and service members of the options available and the benefits of seeking care. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the veterans’ crisis line has made successful interventions in 26,000 cases of actively suicidal veterans to date, demonstrating the importance of removing barriers to early consultation for at-risk patients. The president’s directive also provided for an interagency task force on veterans’ mental health co-chaired by the secretaries of defense, veterans affairs, and health and human services, and ordered a review of existing programs to determine which are most effective.

Such interagency cooperation is crucial to tackling the issues of mental health care and suicide prevention for our veterans. As the Department of Defense confronts its own epidemic of suicides—the military lost more troops to suicide than to combat in 2012—the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs should look for opportunities to cooperate to flag and support at-risk service members, ensuring that they receive the support they need before, during, and after their transition from military to civilian life.

Homelessness

Upon taking office, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki set an ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The most recent analysis from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there were roughly 62,600 homeless veterans in January 2012, a 7.2 percent decline from 2011, and a 17.2 percent decline since 2009—against a decline of 1 percent among the entire population. The Department of Veterans Affairs attributes the success to a concerted effort to increase awareness of Veterans Affairs services available to homeless or at-risk veterans. The department has announced $300 million in grants for community organizations serving homeless veterans. Over the next four years, the Obama administration and Congress should ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs receives the funding necessary to continue these impressive gains in combatting veteran homelessness.

A second-term agenda

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans. This week, the Pentagon announced it will extend new benefits to spouses of gay service members.* Yet the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, still denies the families of gay service members and veterans access to crucial benefits, including health care coverage, survivor benefits, and the right to be buried in a national cemetery alongside their loved ones. President Obama stated that he believes the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional and instructed the Justice Department not to defend the law. The Defense of Marriage Act denies gay troops, veterans, and their families access to many of the services designed to help them weather the long-term stresses caused by repeated deployments and military life. The administration should continue to do everything in its power to extend all legally possible benefits to gay veterans and their families, thereby ensuring that all service members and veterans, regardless of their sexual orientation, receive the support they deserve.

Civilian credentialing. For many highly qualified veterans, credentialing and licensing regulations pose barriers to transferring their skills to the civilian workforce. A veteran who has served as a medic in Afghanistan should not have to start from scratch in earning his or her civilian credential as a nurse or physician assistant. At the direction of President Obama, the Department of Defense created a Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force focused on reducing the credentialing barriers for veterans in industries such as manufacturing, information technology, health care, transportation, and logistics. The task force has already rolled out its reforms in the manufacturing sector—allowing service members to test for civilian credentials immediately upon finishing their military training will lay the groundwork to provide up to 126,000 service members with the industry-recognized certificates they need. In its second term, the administration should continue its work to provide simple, logical avenues to civilian credentialing in the other sectors identified by the task force, including healthcare, information technology, transportation, and logistics.

For-profit colleges. The post-9/11 G.I. Bill helps thousands of veterans attend college each year. Due to these generous benefits, however, veterans can be lucrative targets for malicious or deceptive recruiting by for-profit colleges. Last year President Obama issued an executive order intended to protect veterans from recruiting by higher education institutions that have questionable credentials, low graduation rates, or that cost much more than public universities. This executive order will require for-profit colleges to disclose more information about student outcomes. But more needs to be done to help veterans make informed choices as they pursue postsecondary schooling. Last month the Department of Veterans Affairs launched its first study monitoring how veterans are performing at their universities of choice. In its second term, the Obama administration should expand its efforts to track how veterans are using their G.I. benefits, with the aim of ensuring that the program shows results.

Avert sequestration. With the end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan, the size of our nation’s ground forces will—and should—come down. But through this rebalancing process, it is essential that military and civilian leaders remember the debt that is owed to the men and women, and their families, who have borne the brunt of more than a decade of war. Ensuring that we take care of our returning veterans—making sure they can find jobs, use their G.I. benefits to go to college or receive additional training, get equivalent civilian credentials for jobs they performed in the military, receive prompt and excellent health care, and receive assistance in facing homelessness or substance abuse problems—is a moral imperative.

Sequestration remains a threat to our ability to fulfill these promises. While the Budget Control Act properly exempted most of the Department of Veterans Affairs from cuts, sequestration would still make it difficult to meet the needs of a rapidly growing veteran population by hitting the department’s administrative activities as well as veterans programs run through other departments, such as the Department of Labor. Congressional leaders, particularly those who voted to take us to war, must understand that the costs of our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue for decades after the conclusion of hostilities. It is essential that, having supported the wars, Congress continue to support the troops.

Lawrence J. Korb and Patrick Murphy are Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress.

* In this column “gay” is used as an umbrella term to describe people that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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