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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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 email@example.com
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
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.
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.
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.