National Security Network

Starting to Keep our Promises to America’s Veterans

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Report 10 November 2009

Military Military Obama Administration Veterans Veterans Benefits


NOTE: The NSN Daily Update will take tomorrow off in honor of Veterans Day.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, a time when our country honors the sacrifices and service of our men and women in uniform. Our troops have performed brilliantly under very difficult conditions and fully expect the nation to support them on their return from overseas deployments.  These past eight years have seen veterans, active service members, their families, and veterans’ service organizations under considerable strain.  Multiple deployments have taken a tremendous toll on the military and veteran’s services, as well as the individual soldiers and their families, and our country has failed to keep its promise to support them with the best veteran’s services possible.  The system and structure were simply not prepared or properly resourced for the influx of soldiers returning home from multiple wars.  Our country must do better on their behalf.  After the discovery of problems in health care, most clearly demonstrated at Walter Reed Hospital, the Obama administration has taken great pains of fix the sins of the past.  While plenty of work remains to be done in order to help our veterans, since taking office the Obama administration has made advancements to increase funding for veterans services, streamline the Department of Veterans Affairs, and face the difficult mental health issues that those returning home from war face.  

Over the past eight years, promises to our veterans were broken. VoteVets President Jon Soltz observed that the nation failed to live up to its promises to its veterans, saying that for years the U.S. “underfunded the VA by billions, leading to backlogs and some real horror stories.” The Washington Post’s coverage of scandalous conditions at Walter Reed provided perhaps the most glaring example: “Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.”  The unexpected duration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has placed tremendous strain on the Department of Veterans Affairs, as more and more veterans returned home needing care. The previous administration did not anticipate protracted conflicts in either Afghanistan or Iraq, as projections within the Pentagon at the onset of the Iraq war planned for a significant drawdown of troops would happen in the first few months following the invasion. When each war began to take a greater toll the administration and the VA were caught off guard. One local Buffalo paper described the massive number of veterans returning home: “Another surge is putting pressure on the nation’s military. It is the surge of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returning home with physical and psychological wounds, and the question is: Are the nation’s veterans hospitals equipped and staffed to handle it?” A report by the RAND corporation found:  “Assuming that the prevalence found in this study is representative of the 1.64 million service members who had been deployed for OEF/OIF as of October 2007, we estimate that approximately 300,000 individuals currently suffer from PTSD or major depression and that 320,000 individuals experienced a probable TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury] during deployment.  About one-third of those previously deployed have at least one of these three conditions, and about 5 percent report symptoms of all three.” [Jon Soltz, 8/20/09. Washington Post, 2/17/07. Buffalo News, 3/04/08. RAND, 4/17/08]

The Obama administration and progressives in Congress are keeping our promises to America’s veterans.

  • Defense Authorization Act of 2009. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA) say that “the President signed the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act into law.  While this $600 Billion bill provides the Military with everything that they need to operate for the next year, it includes several provisions that will improve the lives of the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and may save countless lives by improving the way the Military handles Mental Health.”  Provisions included in this bill “Require mandatory, face to face and confidential mental health screenings for every returning servicemember; Increase the number of mental health providers in the military. Limit servicemembers’ exposure to hazardous waste by severely limiting the use of open air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Extend retroactive stop loss payments to Reserve/National Guard.  Grant meaningful voting protections for overseas servicemembers. Curtail DoD’s practice of punishing servicemembers for DoD’s own financial mistakes.” [IAVA, 10/29/09]
  • The 21st Century GI Bill.  Signed into law last year and implemented this summer, the Post-9/11 GI Bill ”provides 36 months of full tuition at every public college or university in the nation, plus fees, books and a housing stipend. It eliminates the $1,200 enrollment fee, extends the ‘Use or Lose’ time limit from 10 to 15 years, and permits reenlisting servicemembers to transfer some or all of their educational benefits to a spouse or children. It automatically adjusts itself as tuitions and fees increase, greatly enhances the amount paid to Guard and Reserve members, and provides a dollar-for-dollar tuition match to more than 1,100 private schools who chose to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program. The new GI Bill also benefits officers who were commissioned through a military service academy or ROTC program,” says the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).  The bill, pushed for by progressives in the Senate,  provides benefits to today’s servicemembers and veterans similar to those received by the veterans returning from World War II.  “The national commander of the 2.1 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. and its Auxiliaries called ... [the] implementation of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill a significant milestone for military servicemembers, their families and the entire country…” [Veterans of Foreign Wars, 08/04/09]
  • Stimulus Package and Veterans Care. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the Obama Administration provided Veterans Affairs with “$1.4 billion for VA projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)... The bulk of the projects fell under VHA, which was allotted $1 billion through ARRA. Of that amount, $601 million is being used for nonrecurring maintenance projects to correct, replace, upgrade and modernize existing infrastructure and utility systems for VA medical centers. VA’s team placed an immediate focus on safety, security and infrastructure deficiencies. A substantial number of energy initiatives are being funded with VHA’s remaining $399 million, which will be used for energy priorities— projects incorporating energy efficiency and renewable energy.” [VAnguard, July/August 2009]
  • VA Advanced Funding. In October, Obama signed new legislation that, according to the Army website “creates predictable funding for veterans' health care. The Veterans Healthcare Reform and Transparency Act fundamentally changes how the Department of Veterans Affairs receive health care funding. The reform calls for appropriations a year in advance after more than two decades of regular budget delays...” [Army.Mil, 11/22/09]
  • Interagency Harmonization. The president has announced an initiative that better provides service and care to soldiers as they transfer from the Department of Defense system to that of the Veterans Affairs system.  American Forces Press Service reports, “President Barack Obama announced plans today to create a joint virtual lifetime electronic record that will improve care and services to transitioning veterans by smoothing the flow of medical records between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. The concept, long advocated by officials in both departments, is considered a major step toward improving the delivery of care and services to servicemembers transitioning from military to civilian life.” [American Forces Press Service, 04/09/09]
  • Plan to End Veterans’ Homelessness. Last week Secretary Shinseki unveiled a 5 year plan to end veterans homelessness.  “Shinseki's comprehensive plan includes preventive measures like discharge planning for incarcerated veterans re-entering society, supportive services for low-income veterans and their families and a national referral center to link veterans to local service providers.  Additionally, the plan calls for expanded efforts for education, jobs, health care and housing.  ‘Our plan enlarges the scope of VA's efforts to combat homelessness,’ said Shinseki. ‘In the past, VA focused largely on getting homeless Veterans off the streets.  Our five-year plan aims also at preventing them from ever ending up homeless,’” reports Reuters. [Reuters, 11/03/09]

Even as the Obama administration takes unprecedented steps to restore the confidence of our veterans, serious challenges remain, from force structure and dwell time to consistent provision of post-combat care. One challenge looming on the horizon is the state of the ground forces, after years of fighting in two wars.  The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis raised concerns in a recent study: “Taken together, the impact of the wars on troop quality, force structure, modernization plans, and materiel readiness poses a serious challenge for overall Army readiness. Eroding troop quality, a force structure that is not optimized for irregular warfare, and weapons that are too expensive to field in sufficient quantity risk having devastating consequences on overall military effectiveness.”  Dwell time stands out as particular concern.  In a piece for Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick described how “[t]he Army now considers a routine of 12 months deployed, 24 months home sustainable in the long run. The Army believes it can implement this routine if it limits its commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq to no more than 10 brigades.” But, as Haddick goes on to point out, “one Marine and six Army brigades are currently serving in Afghanistan. These seven brigades are part of the 68,000 U.S. troops in the country. McChrystal's 40,000-soldier increase would bring the U.S. brigade count in Afghanistan to at least 11 and probably more.”  Haddick concluded by saying: “Assuming the U.S. really does evacuate all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, the Army and the Marine Corps would find a way to sustain the larger effort in Afghanistan while also increasing home-station time.”  

Additional steps must also be taken to increase veterans’ access to quality health care.  A brief by the RAND Corporation indicated that “Mental health specialty care for conditions such as PTSD and depression is not readily available in many parts of the country” and that “[m]ost mental health specialists are concentrated in urban areas.”  In addition, the Brief also found that treatment across the country is not always in keeping with best-practices, and still faces significant standardization hurdles. [CSBA, 8/12/09. Robert Haddick, via Foreign Policy, 10/23/09. RAND, 5/17/09]

What We’re Reading

The new government of Japan has pledged $5 billion in aid to the Afghan government.

North and South Korean navy vessels exchanged fire for the first time in seven years, leaving a North Korea boat in flames. In addition, President Obama will send a senior official for direct talks with the North Korean regime; the first time there has been direct talks in over a year.

The latest car bomb in Peshawar killed at least 20 people, as Taliban militants continue their asymmetric campaign against the Pakistani government’s ability to protest civilians.

The US military in Iraq has quietly urged Kurdish and Arab soldiers to work together and act more professionally, in a bid to head off rising Arab-Kurdish tensions. Meanwhile, women rise within the ranks of the Iraqi Police Force, and a Sunni Awakening leader is arrested for outstanding murder charges. Iranian dissidents exiled at Camp Ashraf continue to vex American and Iraq security officials.

Three American hikers who crossed the Turkish border into Iran in late July were charged with espionage.

The rampant war against drugs in Mexico is now drawing in women who slip by traditional security measures, or drug addicts whose ranks increasingly include women.

The threat of resignation by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is causing fear that the nascent governance apparatus for the West Bank will be dismantled entirely, causing a huge vacuum in political leadership. During his visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for renewed peace talks, but he didn’t list any new confidence-building measures by the Israelis.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has finally formed a cabinet and a coalition government, five months after his coalition of parties won parliamentary elections.

Saudi Arabia’s entry into the growing insurgency in Yemen has entered a sixth day, with both the Saudi military and Houthi rebels claiming tactical victories against the others.

Commentary of the Day

Peter Andreas celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by highlighting the growing wall between the wealthiest and the poorest nations, and advising on how to prevent further isolation based on unequal economic growth.

The New York Times applauds the Iraqi Parliament for passing an election law for January’s election, but they highlight that political reconciliation is a process, not just a parliamentary vote.

Tom Hayden urges President Obama to continue using tools of diplomacy to seek political reconciliation in Afghanistan, rather than becoming more and more dependent on a military solution for Afghanistan’s political stalemate.