Thursday, June 09, 2011







"Today," declared Senator Patty Murray this morning as she brought the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to order, "we have a very ambitious agenda which really reflects the hard work of members on both sides of the aisle. We have numerous challenges to meet for our nation's veterans and I am pleased that this Committee has worked -- and will continue to work -- to develop legislation that substantially improves the lives -- their lives and the lives of their families, especially during this time of war."
This was a hearing on proposed legislation. Ranking Member Richard Burr will be covered, as usual, by Kat at her site tonight. The Committee was joined by Senator Olympia Snowe, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who do not serve on the Committee but had bills they wanted to discuss. Snowe, for example, has a bill regarding the military funerals, specifically the protests by one church group that makes homophobic remarks and other remarks on signs and in shouting and chanting. Senator Snowe stated her bill did not attempt to curtail speech, did not impose any rules on what can be stated, but that it would increase the area of protection for the mourners -- instead of protesters needing to remain at least 100 feet away, her bill would change that to 300 feet. (I am not endorsing or opposing this bill. I'm just noting it. Many would argue -- and they have a point -- that if speech is outside an area where it can be heard, it's really not free speech.) The Committee also heard from two panels. The first was government officials: VA's John McWilliam and VA's Robert Jesse. The second was VFW's Raymond Kelley, the American Legion's Jeff Steele, the AFL-CIO's J. David Cox and Disabled American Veterans' Joseph Violante.
Before we go further Rob Hotakainen has an article that is or will be appearing in all the McClatchy Newspapers (link goes to Kansas City Star) where he looks at Iraq War veteran Eric Smith, 26-years-old, repeatedly searching for work -- full time, but willing to take part-time in an attempt to make ends meet (and, no, part-time's never going to make it work). How bad has the employment scene been for him? He even took part in a medical drug trial study to earn $1,200. Hotakainen notes, "In late March, he and 27 other veterans participated in IAVA's 'Storm the Hill' lobbying campaign. They went to 117 offices on Capitol Hill and met with 57 members of Congress, asking them to commission a study on military vocational skills and certifications. Smith and other veterans complain that the skills they learn in the military aren't enough to get them civilian certifications in their fields when they return home." Eric Smith supports the bill Chair Muarry is proposing (and he took part in the press conference for the bill last month).
Committee Chair Patty Murray: There is much on the agenda that is important but I want to speak briefly about one item -- the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011. Ensuring that our veterans can find employment when they come home is an area where we must do more. For too long, we have been investing billions of dollars training our young men and women to protect our nation, only to ignore them when they come home. For too long, we have patted them on the back and pushed them into the civilian job market with no support. This is simply unacceptable and does not meet the promise we made to our men and women in uniform. Our hands-off approach has left us with an unemployment rate in February of over 27 percent among young veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. That is over one in four of our nation's heroes who can't find a job to support their family. Over one in four of our service men and women lack the stability that is so critical to their transition home. That's why last month I introduced the bipartisan Hiring Heroes Act of 2011 which now has 19 co-sponsors. This legislation will help us rething the way we support our service members as they return home and search for living-wage jobs. I introduced this critical legislation because I've heard first-hand from the veterans for whom we've failed to provide better job support. I've had veterans tell me that they no longer write that they're a veteran on their resume because they fear the stigma they believe employers attach to the invisible wounds of war. I've heard from medics who return home from treating battlefield wounds who can't get certifications to be an EMT or to drive an ambulance. These stories are as heartbreaking as they are frustratng. But more than anything, they're a reminder that we have to act now. The Hiring Heroes Act would allow our men and women in uniform to capitalize on their services while also ensuring that the American people capitalize on the investment we have made in them. For the first time, it would require every service member transitioning from active duty to partipate in the Transition Assistance Program [TAP]. This program supports our veterans by providing them with broad job skills training before they separate from service. This bill would also allow service members to begin the federal employment process prior to separation. It would also require the Department of Labor to take a hard look at what military skills and training should be translatable to the civilian sector. This is a much needed step toward making it simpler for veterans to obtain much needed licenses and certifications. And, finally, my legislation would allow for innovative partnerships between VA, DoD and organizations that provide mentorship and training programs designed to lead to job placements for veterans. All of these are real, substantial steps to put our veterans to work and they come at a pivotal time for our economic recovery and our service members.
At Third Estate Sunday Review, we endorsed Committee Chair Patty Murray's Hiring Heroes Act of 2011 including the mandatory aspect but: "There are a lot of programs the military offers. There's a real problem getting the word out. In some instances, such as PTSD, it's hard to draw any conclusion either than the military wants to keep the numbers down. Making the program mandatory means it falls back on superiors if veterans aren't getting access to these programs." We stand by that but there's a development since then. Earlier this month, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing. We'll again note this exchange.
Subcommittee Chair Marlin Stutzman: I do have a couple of questions for both of you. You mentioned the figure of 45% of service members attend TAP. Is that for all branches? Am I wrong in that the Marines do require, it is mandatory for their service members to attend TAP before they are discharged? And do we know if their percentages are any higher than the other branches?
Christina Roof: When I spoke with Marine Corps officials last week, I was told it is mandatory that their Marines complete the TAP program. I was also told there were some exceptions, of course, you know, like critical injuries involved and so on. But I was told last week that it is mandatory that all their Marines complete TAP before their service discharge.
Subcommittee Chair: Marlin Stutzman: So that's with no exceptions? Every Marine coming out does -- has completed TAP or . . .
Christina Roof: Again, I can only go on what they told me which was, it is mandatory which I think is a great idea that should be across the board. I can't speak, again, to each individual case but it seems like they are enforcing it.
Subcommittee Chair Marlin Stutzman: So would the 45% number have Marines in that percentage? Or do we not know more of -- the demographics or --
Christina Roof: I'll let my colleague, I think that was his number.
Marco Reininger: Sir, if I may, I'm not 100% sure whether or not this number includes the Marine Corps but I believe that making it mandatory DoD wide would be the right solution here. That same survey indicated that many veterans didn't attend the TAP program where TAP courses were offered because it had a reputation of being redundant, not really useful for making a successful transition. And, in some cases even, commanding officers wouldn't let them go. This is what they say, again, this is what the survey indicated. So mandating it DoD wide for all service branches would be the right answer here, sir. And, of course, along with that comes having to overhaul the program so that it actually works and makes sense for people to actually attend.
[. . .]
Ranking Member Bruce Braley: Let me ask you this basic question. Isn't it true that the Department of Defense could make these programs mandatory, across the board right now without any further action by Congress if they wanted to? [They nod their heads.] That was a "yes" from both of you.
Marco Reininger: Yes, sir, absolutely, the executive branch could order this to be mandatory and that would most likely be the end of it as far as I understand the process.
So Committee Chair Murray's bill would not impose something new with regards to TAP, it would bring the other branches up to the same standard that the Marines already are compelled to meet. That's all the more reason to support it because to address problems that are spread out across the various branches, there needs to be standardization among the branches in terms of requirements.
In terms of certifications and licenses, what Chair Murray is speaking of hearing from veterans is something most members of Congress have heard. In a hearing of the full House Veterans Affairs Committee this month, US House Rep Bob Filner also addressed this issue.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I thank you all for your testimony and your efforts. This is obviously a Congressional hearing and we have oversight of the VA. I haven't heard any suggestions on what we ought to be doing or what the VA ought to be doing. Looks like the only guy who's doing anything in government is Mr. Jefferson over here -- I mean, from the testimony -- I know you're false modest. But what are we all doing here? I mean this ought to be a top priority for everybody. And I can imagine -- you guys are the experts -- but if I just thought about it for a few seconds I could think of what the VA could be doing. I mean, why isn't every regional office, for example, putting out a list of veterans and their specialties and what they're seeking jobs as? You guys all said we have trouble linking up with who the veterans are. Well the VA knows every veteran. Let's just put out a list of everybody who's looking for a job. I mean, it just doesn't seem difficult. We hear about the transition of skills in the military being hard to translate. We could deem anybody who's in electronics or a medic or a truck driver -- I mean, we can give them a certificate that says "For the purposes of hiring, this serves as" you know "what ever entry level." And people can be trained further. But they have incredible skills. We've been working on this civilian certification for, I don't know, decades. Nobody can seem to solve it. We've got guys truck driving all over Iraq or Afghanistan, they come home and they find out they have to take a six month course to get a commercial driving license. They say, "Hey, what do I need that for?" And they get discouraged. They're truck drivers. They know how to do it and they do it under the most difficult conditions you can imagine. Let them have a certificate that starts with a job. Or electronics people or medics. I mean, I've watched these medics. They have incredible -- they do things that no civilian would ever think of doing and yet they've got to go through some other certification, masters and go to this college and that college. Come on. They have the training. And we could just do it. I'd like you to give us some suggestions in either law, regulation, just executive order that we can help you do the kind of things you're doing every day. You are out there. We ought to be helping you in every way we can and the VA's job is to do that.

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