Monday, April 16, 2012

VCS: GOP Budget Ignores Veterans

The article originally appeared on Veterans for Common Sense on 22 March 2012.

The federal budget is a statement of priorities. In the Rep. Ryan version of the 2013 budget subsequently embraced by Gov. Mitt Romney, the word veteran never appears. The budget proposal runs to 98 pages. Zero mention of veterans. Two protracted conflicts, high veteran unemployment and a multitude of coming home issues and not one mention of veterans in this budget proposal. It clearly states that veterans are NOT a priority. This budget proposal is worse than an empty thanks for your service, an empty thanks would require being mentioned. Veterans did not even make the list of prioirites. Veterans were ignored entirely. Veterans are essentially being told thanks for nothing, you are on your own. This is absolutely unacceptable. Especially coming from an aspiring commander-in-chief.

Now contrast that with the 2013 budget the President recently unveiled that clearly makes veterans a top priority. The contrast is very stark.

With a new generation of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the few significant increases in the executive’s 2013 budget is to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs,which would be increased by 10%. This increase addresses issues facing veterans ranging from mental health to homelessness. It even addresses the needs of the growing female veterans population. Most importantly it budgets for needed increases in health care and disablity compensation.

But the budget mostly cuts. For every $1 in revenue raised from those making $250,000 annually and closing corporate tax loopholes, it cuts $2.50 from the budget. In ten years it will cut virtually the same amount of all discretionary spending for 2013. This was a target agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans.

The media has reported that President Obama’s 2013 budget is controversial, though it reflects bipartisan agreement in Congress that discretionary spending should be reduced by $1 trillion over ten years. It allows the Bush tax cuts that have mostly benefitted the wealthiest Americans to expire. It institutes the ‘Buffet Rule’ that no household making over $1 million a year will pay less than 30% in taxes. It also includes the Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee on America’s biggest financial institutions who contributed to the financial crisis to ensure every cent of taxpayer funds from the TARP are paid back to the federal government.

So where is the controversy? The budget still projects a $901 billion shortfall. In the $3.6 trillion proposal, $2.5 trillion, about 70%, is ‘mandatory’ spending, which means that the money must be spent according to laws passed by Congress. The other $1.1 trillion is ‘discretionary’ spending, meaning this is money the President would like to spend. To ‘balance the budget’, as many in Congress are calling for, would mean cutting out all discretionary spending except for around $200 billion.

This sounds easier than it is, especially when the cost of defense maintenance and operations is $272 billion alone. Virtually all defense spending is discretionary and the President’s budget already includes billions of dollars in defense cuts in procurement, operations, bases, and personnel. Discretionary spending increases in the budget include Veterans healthcare, student aid, the State Department, and housing. To balance the budget in 2013 would mean mothballing the Pentagon and State Department, as well as veterans’ healthcare, student aid, and the federal prison system. And that would just be for one year. It wouldn’t even begin to pay down the national debt which we have accumulated over decades.

Americans have gotten used to demanding government provide services we all want and benefit from, but refuse to pay higher revenue, or taxes, to fund them. This seems to include paying for the true costs of war,if the Ryan-Romney 2013 budget is any indication. This is unacceptable.

The budget discourse takes place on intellectually dishonest terms. Who would provide the services everyone is accustomed to if this budget was passed? Some of the most vital services the government provides no private sector firm can or would provide. What private firm could provide a military? Even private defense contractors employ former soldiers trained by the U.S. military. Private intelligence contractors do the same. Who would build and maintain roads and airports and secure them? Firms may build roads and airports where and when they need them, but they wouldn’t build them beyond their own need for capacity or use. Even if the government got out of the healthcare and Social Security game altogether, individual Americans would still have to pay for these services out of pocket.

President Obama’s 2013 budget should not controversial. Most of the President’s budget (like all budgets) is controlled by laws passed by Congress. If Sen. McCain were sitting in the White House today instead of President Obama, he would be facing the same problems. Americans support preserving and continuing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They want a strong national security apparatus, good infrastructure, and education. Americans also overwhelmingly support our military and veterans,one of the few issues most agree on regardless of party. As a nation we must take a hard look at our values and realize that all of these things cost money and must be paid for. It isn’t a choice of which or how much; it is a choice of either/or. Either we decide we don’t want these things and don’t have to pay for them or we decide we do and we pay the what is required. Great countries require investment and hardwork, not dishonest conversations that allow us to shirk our responsibilities. As americans we must set priorities that live up to our highest ideals and values.

President Obama’s budget proposal makes sense and displays a very different set of priorities than the Ryan budget. Veterans occupy a preeminent place within that set of priorities,especially compared to being completely ignored. It is a balance of cuts and revenue increases. It provides for the programs Americans overwhelmingly support. It continues to fund programs we need to help our economy grow out of this economic downturn.

Veterans Struggle; America Must Do More

The article originally appeared on Veterans for Common Sense on 2 April 2012.

Despite a decade of discussion and advocacy, testimonials by politicians, and t-shirts and bumper stickers displayed everywhere, American veterans continue to struggle and pay for their sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Seldom does one meet someone who does not profess respect and admiration for those who served. Yet the statistics and struggles of America’s veterans, highlighted today by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, tell another story. America is not doing well by its veterans.

Unemployment among veterans remains consistently above the national average by many measures, sometimes doubling or tripling it in certain categories. The fact that veterans are struggling to find employment is one of the few points Congress and President Obama agree and have taken some positive action on. The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to bear the brunt of veterans’ frustrations. Their case is not being helped by bipartisan agreement among the heads of both the House and Senate Veteran’s Affairs committees that they’ll have to meet growing demand and issues with a flat budget. Despite positive veteran employment efforts by private firms, the private sector continues to be an unfriendly place for vets.

The GI Bill is one of the most successful government education and employment programs in history, making America’s post-WWII workforce the most educated in the world. But some for-profit universities are taking advantage of veterans today. Many young veterans coming home are wisely trying to increase their chances of finding employment using the Post-9/11 GI Bill in record numbers. Veterans’ emails, mailboxes, and social networking pages are deluged with ads from for-profit universities and calls from recruiters working on commission using questionable techniques. Many programs cost much more than at community colleges, won’t be accepted by industry, or won’t be accepted for transfer credit. The culprit seems to be the ‘90/10 rule’, which allows for-profit colleges to sign up nine civilian students for every one servicemember or veteran enrolled, thus the emphasis on veterans. Instead of benefitting vets, this taxpayer money is lining the pockets of some for-profit colleges. Unfortunately, the industry is backed by some financial heavyweights that have allies in Congress.

Homelessness among veterans has always been a problem and continues to be one for America’s newest generation. As much as one quarter of all homeless have served in the military. VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki has vowed to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015 and there are positive indications. The rate dropped by 12% in the last year. But there are still over 60,000 veterans without a home in America. The problem is increasing among female veterans, many of whom are raising children as single mothers. Despite this continuing problem, some in Congress don’t believe it is one that needs increased funding.

PTSD and TBI are invisible wounds of war that over 20% of veterans carry home. Recent incidents involving soldiers and veterans in which PTSD or TBI may be involved have stirred a lot of media attention. The difficulties in dealing with work, school, and family life that these injuries cause and the stigma carried even by veterans who do not suffer from them causes problems in employment, studies, and at home. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the disorganized way the military has spent the nearly $3 billion allocated to it since 2007 to study PTSD and TBI. Statistics show treating veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI, or both is expensive and requires longer treatment times. Despite the costs to veterans and the necessary cost of treating these illnesses, many in Congress continue to target the Department of Veterans Affairs for cuts at a time when veterans need help the most.

America is not doing well by its veterans by many measures. The disturbing trend is that all of these problems are interconnected. Military service comes with great hardships for servicemembers and their families while in uniform and afterwards. Those that serve in uniform give years of their lives to train and fight for the country. Many suffer from visible and physical ailments, others suffer from invisible wounds. Their service often leads to struggles in the job market and in education. These sacrifices lead to as many disadvantages in life as advantages. Veteran’s benefits are earned, not given. Despite America’s professed love of its veterans, public funds and the efforts of those that support programs to assist or level the playing field for veterans are constantly threatened with cuts.

Those who have already sacrificed so much for the country are being asked to sacrifice even more.

VCS Special Commentary: A Closer Look at Veterans Unemployment

This article originally appeared on Veterans for Common Sense on 5 April 2012.

Unemployment among veterans remains above the national average by many measures, sometimes doubling or tripling it in certain categories. The fact that veterans are struggling to find employment is one of the few points Congress and President Obama agree and have taken some positive action on. Strangely, there seems to be bipartisan agreement among both the House and Senate Veteran’s Affairs committees that America will have to meet growing demand and continuing issues with a flat budget for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Despite positive veteran employment efforts by some private firms, the private sector continues to be an unfriendly place for vets. Despite some good faith efforts by both the government and private employers, it is clear that veterans are continuing to struggle to find employment.

A problem in the debate is that there is disagreement upon what the unemployment rate among veterans actually is. The answer to the question also depends upon who one includes. America has vets stretching back to the WWII era. Data shows that employment among veterans of the first Gulf War era and earlier is roughly equivalent with their non-veteran counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the rate among all vets in 2011 was 8.3%, on par with the current national average. But among vets serving since 9/11 to today the rate was 12%, higher than the national average. The worst statistic to come out was that unemployment among post-9/11 vets aged between 18 and 24 was at 29%, 12% more than the non-veteran average for the same age group.

The Department of Veterans Affairs argues that veteran unemployment has been trending down since 2010, but it is still higher than average. The numbers tend to indicate that the youngest of our newest generation of veterans are struggling hardest to find work. These are men and women that have four to six years of service under their belt, may still be serving in the Reserves, and likely have one or more combat deployments. Their non-veteran civilian counterparts are struggling to find work as well; their unemployment rate was at 17%. Most of this group are high school grads, many are recent college grads.

That is a tough demographic to be a part of since the 2008 downturn. But that veterans, all at least high school grads and many with college, with four to six years of military work experience under their belt should experience a rate over 12% above average exposes a real problem. When they do find employment, there’s a one in four chance it’s a government job, a rate twice that among non-veterans. There is also a one in four chance they have a service-connected disability.

Things get a little better with age. Post-9/11 vets aged 25 to 35 experienced 13% unemployment in 2011, half that their younger compatriots, but still 4% more than their non-veteran counterparts of the same age group. This suggests that after a few years of settling back into civilian life, many veterans have been able to find employment. However, the number of those that continue to struggle to find a job is higher than average and is happening at a time when the U.S. economy is still struggling. There is general agreement the economy is improving and hopefully veteran employment statistics and outlooks will improve with it.

But why does this disparity exist? Some suggest that the economic downturn cuts jobs in industries returning veterans are most likely to work in. These tend to be entry level jobs or blue-collar jobs, categories where there has been the greatest retraction in positions. Most servicemembers also tend to come from areas of the country where the shift in the global economy has emptied factories or office towers.

But it would also seem that there continues to be the view in many industries that four to eight years in the military and skills and experience earned while serving doesn’t equate to experience in the private sector. It is, essentially, a black hole on a resume. Many private sector employers will not recognize years of military service as a qualification. It is an unknown quantity for many of them. Only around 2-3% of Americans ever served in the military. Contrast this with the almost universal American experience of high school, college for some and training for others, then getting a job. A private sector employer is unable to quantify something they do not understand.

For many employers, our newest generation of veterans comes from another planet, another style of life they do not understand and haven’t experienced. No amount of resume classes given by the military before separation or by unemployment offices afterwards will be able to overcome the inability of many non-veteran employers to determine if the veteran applicant before them is qualified for the job. For many, the resume might as well come from another country.

In order to really address the problem of unemployment among veterans, especially for more jobs in the private sector, there must be a concerted national effort to recognize the skills and experience veterans have after serving. The military today is a different one from those even other vets joined in the 1980’s. Today America has an all-volunteer force that is driven by Noncommissioned Officers, just as much as it is Commissioned Officers. Soldiers and Sailors today are not sitting around peeling potatoes like in black and white movies. America’s leaner, more professional military is the most technologically advanced and the most experienced since WWII.

The combat veteran former-Sergeant who used to lead convoys in Baghdad is qualified to manage the lawn and garden department. The Senior Airman who unloaded Medevac helicopters in Kandahar can be your receptionist. The Petty Officer who ran a communications station in Kuwait can lead a cable installation team. The Lance Corporal who set up fighting positions in Al-Anbar can push a construction crew. Veterans didn’t let the country down while in uniform. We shouldn’t let them down when they come home and need a job.

Rep. Allen West Embodies 'Conduct Unbecoming'

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 12 April 2012.

If there is any phrase that can sum up Rep. Allen West (R-FL), it is ‘conduct unbecoming.’ He has gained fame by making outlandish and insulting comments and then chalking them up to being the quintessential ‘military man.' In reality, West is a man very much frozen in a moment in his life where he has lost control of himself and lost his military career as a result. Instead of dealing with that mistake, he has doubled down on it in his political career and become a hero to many because of it.

While serving as a Battalion Commander in Taji, Iraq in 2004, West lost control and performed a “mock execution” on an unarmed, detained Iraqi police officer in front of junior soldiers. No hard intelligence leading to anything of value came of the incident. West claimed he was protecting himself and his soldiers and the victim gave information about a planned IED attack. There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Iraq in 2004, myself included, led by hundreds of Battalion Commanders who also wanted to protect their soldiers. None of them resorted to mock executions to do so. Everyone there was under threat. West's conduct was unbecoming of an officer. When an Article 32 investigation found that West violated articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he was relieved of command, and fined $5,000. He was allowed to retire with full benefits.

Since winning election to Congress, he has become a hero to the Tea Party right and recently suggested by some, including Sarah Palin, as a possible GOP pick for Mitt Romney’s vice president. Brazen, rash, and insulting conduct is a continuing pattern for West. He has frequently and personally attacked President Obama and called his supporters a ‘threat to the gene pool’, famously attacked fellow Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, railed against practicing-Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) for being a threat to ‘American principles’, and yesterday accused many congressional Democrats of being ‘communists’. West often justifies his conduct by citing his military service and claiming, “That’s the way it’s done in the military.”

But it isn’t. In the military, when a leader has a dispute with peers, it can get rather ugly. But it is either handled publicly in a professional manner or privately in person and face-to-face. Things are certainly not sugarcoated and are often curt and to the point, but they are not dragged before the media or turned into a divisive whisper campaign that undermines unit or national cohesion. Everyone loses their control occasionally, but Allen West has an established pattern of conduct in which he frequently exhibits poor judgment or control of his behavior or actions. When questioned about it, he cites his time spent in the military, an institution which came to reject his conduct.

Allen West does not represent the quintessential ‘military man’. His conduct in Iraq and his frequent outbursts in Congress are not in keeping with military tradition. It often appears that West is a man who is at war with the progressive worldview, which he blames for ending his military career. In truth, it was his own poor judgment and loss of control that ended his career. Unfortunately, he continues to behave in the same rash manner as a Representative in Congress as he did in Iraq. It is rather telling of what sort of an institution we have in our Congress when behavior the military rejects will win notoriety or applause in our politics.

PTSD Not Cause of Veteran Violence, But War Has Negative Psychological Effects on Soldiers

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 9 April 2012.

I’m an Iraq War veteran and an advocate for Veterans for Common Sense. My friends and family are mostly veterans or part of military families. This past decade has been tough for the military following 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and military actions throughout the world. The pressure of multiple combat deployments on the military has been tremendous. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are among the foremost issues affecting our troops today. They also remain controversial. The shooting of a Park Ranger by Iraq vet Colton Barnes and the murders in Afghanistan allegedly committed by SSG Robert Bales have brought the issue into focus.

Many argue PTSD/TBI are being wrongly blamed by the media and misperceived in the public as the cause of these violent acts. They are correct. Veterans, even those who don’t have PTSD/TBI, carry the stigma that they’re ‘crazy vets’. This is a justified fear. Not every vet has PTSD/TBI, though nearly a quarter do. Not every veteran who has PTSD/TBI will tend toward violent behavior. The overwhelming majority will not. There are studies that show the connection between PTSD/TBI and violence is tenuous. Additionally, the mostly-cognitive nature of PTSD/TBI makes them impossible to diagnose with 100% accuracy.

Another school of thought, while in agreement about the misperception of the connection of PTSD/TBI with violence, holds that denying any connection between the experience of combat and negative follow-on consequences such as violence, suicide, or inability to adjust to civil society is dishonest and unfair. PTSD/TBI is not the only negative effect of time at war. It may be that veterans like Barnes and Bales didn’t suffer from PTSD/TBI at all. But to deny that their time spent at war had any effect on their actions seems to fly in the face of common sense. The opposite view has the effect of turning people like Barnes and Bales into killers whose time in combat didn’t affect their actions at all. It may also serve to assuage the responsibility our leaders have to ensure our military isn’t being overburdened. If incidents can simply be chalked up to individual faults, then what’s to stop protracted and multiple combat tours from becoming the rule and not an exception.

Regardless of view, America must address the heavy burden long, gritty combat tours have on our volunteer military. If you ask a trooper they’ll tell you they’re ‘good to go’ and military medicine can sometimes be compared to team doctors sending players back on the field after multiple concussions. This consideration should (and used to be) included in planning for conflicts that turn into long slogs. The downside of an all-volunteer military is that they volunteer to serve no matter what. This creates a duty for our political leaders to ensure our troops are being protected from the lifelong effects of years at war. America has a duty to protect its troops as much as they’re protecting us. When we send them off to war, it had better be worth it.

Afghanistan Massacre Show Multiple Tours Burden Troops

This post originally appeared on PolicyMic on 15 March 2012.

The murder of 16 civilians by an American soldier in Afghanistan has reignited the debate about the effect of multiple combat tours on our troops. Media reports have cited data that show multiple tours has a negative effect. You don’t need survey data to tell you that, just common sense. A lone report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found troops have more problems after a first deployment than following tours. However, military medicine can be looked at as the same as the team doctors that send football players back onto the field after multiple concussions.

A point that requires clarification is that the issue isn’t about the number of “tours.” Our different forces and units with different missions serve “tours” of different lengths. A tour in combat today may be as little as three to six months and up to 15 months. An Airman may do multiple six month tours while a soldier may do one 15 month turn. Some troops can deploy to a combat zone, yet never see combat. This isn’t always job-dependent. There are plenty of cooks and truck drivers who have seen as much combat as an infantryman. These are points the media and civilians don’t know and don’t understand. The debate is about the amount of time spent in combat, not the number of tours.

Like most things, there is no substitute for experience in combat. I felt a lot more competent and confident on my second tour in Iraq following my first 15-month tour. That experience was valuable when preparing and leading troops on their first tour. America now has the most seasoned and competent military in the world. However I certainly felt the cumulative effect of 27 months spent in Iraq. The things put into your head in combat never leave. It’s a strange tick of the human mind that we remember the things we want to forget and forget the things we want to remember.

The drawback of a smaller, all-volunteer military is that in long conflicts multiple tours become unavoidable. Afghanistan is now the longest ever American war. At certain times more Reserve or National Guard troops, usually tasked only to supplement, were serving in Iraq than Active Duty units were. Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of a draft, but the price for our troops is more time in combat when military interventions become protracted. Those that volunteer pay a very heavy burden.

One day in combat can be enough to have an effect. Some people may serve years without incident. In total, I’ve spent over four years of my life in a combat zone. But it doesn’t take a lot to understand that the more time troops spend in combat, the more likely an incident becomes. Our troops pay for the nation’s decision to go to war their entire lives, while those that make the decision pay very little themselves. We owe it to our troops to make sure that we’re protecting them as much as they’re protecting us.