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Five Things to Think about with VA Reform

Reform efforts that have sought to make VA more accountable but that have not taken into account the “Human Resources” dynamics affecting VA have foundered on those rocks. The issues of public sector unions and Civil Service reform are larger than VA but profoundly affect it, and VA is dependent on Congress for legislating those broad reforms.

Past reform efforts focused on VA health care have also foundered on the rigid “Iron Triangle.” John K. Iglehart wrote in 1985 that the “VA and its advocates represent a classic example of an ‘iron triangle’ of interests that make their way through the Washington policy swirl.” The federal agency of the VA, the congressional committees that oversee and protect its interests, and veterans’ service organizations (VSOs, many of which operate under a federal charter) make up an “Iron Triangle” more often than not.

VA facilities provide thousands of jobs in certain congressional districts. Elected officials oppose the closure of VA facilities in their districts for identical reasons they oppose the closure of military bases. No one wants to appear to be anti-veteran—especially a Senator or Representative facing reelection. VSOs command prestige and influence both in public perception and on Capitol Hill, but they are traditionally or historically hesitant about reform efforts that appear to cut anything at all.

The actual needs of veterans seeking service from VA are often in direct competition with the perceived needs of the organizations and public officials designed to serve them. Thus the genuine desire to serve veterans often gets caught in the dizzyingly complex whirlwind of perceived and unperceived bureaucratic needs and interests, with the result that well-intentioned reform efforts seem merely to replicate its predecessor’s unsuccess.


Why Veterans are Underrepresented in Congress

For well-on 30 years military veterans have been a decreasing presence in Congress. Any reversal of the declining trend will probably begin with the one tried-and-true way to gain legislative experience, build name recognition, and increase access to a fundraising network: election to a state legislature.


Serving After Serving: Veterans in State Public Office

Are veterans in public office a vanishing breed? The composition of the state legislatures doesn’t tell such a story. Actually, it tells an entirely new story, since no one up to this point appears ever to have compiled the data on the military service backgrounds of state-level legislators.

Combing through publicly available sources regarding every member of every state legislature, the AEI Program on American Citizenship has gathered such information for the first time, to form a more comprehensive picture of the veteran composition of public office holders in 2016.


After Johnny’s Marched Home: Military Veterans and the Shaping of American Politics

With every major military conflict involving Americans the nation has reevaluated its relationship with the veteran, partly in consequence of the demands each specific war required it to lay upon the soldier in the first place. The changing face of industrialized society and the technologies of war as well as political thought have influenced each generation’s consensus…How veterans themselves have responded to their new status as citizen-soldiers turned soldier-citizens has traditionally reflected national attitudes. Beyond any affects of combat, the equation of individual civic duty and civic virtue and the nation’s reciprocal duty and virtue has influenced—although not dictated—veterans’ social and political behavior. Aside from the significant role citizen-soldiers fill in defending the country, citizen-veterans have played a defining role in the shaping of American political culture that has not been widely appreciated. The combined circumstances of the polarized electorate and the estimated already 2.6 million soldiers of the post-9/11 wars who have returned to civilian status recently—in private ceremonies on guarded bases far away from the public eye—highlight the value of a modest conceptual review of veterans and politics in America.


Awarding the Medal of Honor to Iraq War Servicemembers

The President of the United States has awarded 3,471 Medals of Honor since the award’s inception in 1861, recognizing soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for risking their life above the call of duty. James Roberts, writing in the Wall Street Journal, laments the fact that not a single living service member has received the Medal of Honor from service in the Iraq War, and provides a remarkable example of valor deserving of recognition.


Honoring our Veterans through “Taps”

The iconic military hymn “Taps” has been a hallmark of American military funerals since 1891. Tom Day, founder of the organization Bugles Across America, strives to ensure that that tradition, and the veterans who died in America’s service, are not forgotten. In a new article in the Weekly Standard, the great Matt Labash describes Day’s lifelong commitment to honoring veterans.


Addressing the Backlog of Veterans Disability Claims

The backlog of disability claims waiting to be resolved by the VA reached 611,000 in March, an all-time high. President Obama spoke at the Disabled American Veterans’ convention in Florida on Saturday and acknowledged that the problem was far from being resolved, but progress had been made.


Supporting Veterans as a Moral and Practical Duty

Providing adequate services to America’s veterans is not only a moral obligation, but also a critical step in ensuring the future vitality of the military, Alexander Nicholson argues. In an article in The Atlantic, Nicholson makes the case for improving veterans services to ensure that the benefits promised by the VA are actually delivered to veterans in an efficient manner.


Veteran Returns to Korea to Honor Fallen Soldier

More than 60 years after the deadly Korean War battle that took his friend’s life, one US Navy veteran returned to North Korea in an effort to retrieve his fellow soldier’s remains, writes Jane Perlez of the New York Times. Lt. Thomas Hudner Jr. sought to return to crash site where Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first black aviator in the US Navy, was shot down.


Solving the Veterans Disability Backlog

There are more than 850,000 veterans waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their disability claims. With the average wait time at 330 days, and some veterans waiting well over a year for service according to USA Today, Senators Dean Heller (R-NV) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have introduced legislation to reduce the backlog.


Improving Veterans’ Mental Health Services

In response to grave concerns over veterans’ access to adequate mental health services, the Veterans Affairs Department announced that they will expand their mental health services, starting immediately. This announcement comes after President Obama’s remarks at the National Conference on Mental Health on Monday. “Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide — 22. We’ve got to do a better job … of preventing these all-too-often silent tragedies.”


Running a mile in their shoes

In an effort to better understand the skills that student-veterans bring with them to college, a group of New Jersey educators attended a week-long Marine Corps Educators Boot Camp at Paris Island, South Carolina. Many of the participants of the program were high school guidance counselors, principals, and history teachers who took part in order to learn more about what some of their students may be doing following graduation; other participants were administrators at community colleges who wanted to find out more about education in the military and how the skills that veterans have learned there can translate into college credit and help them find work in the civilian workforce.


Nominate a veteran for the 2013 HOOAH Award

Each year, the Major George A. Smith Memorial Fund awards the HOOAH Award to a veteran who “defines citizenship through service to our country, both in uniform and beyond.” Past honorees include Eric Greitens, Derek Blumke, Eric Hilleman, and Chris Marvin; read their inspiring stories here. Nominations for the 2013 HOOAH Award are now being accepted.


Translating military skills for civilian employers

At the New York Times “At War” blog, James Dao takes a look at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Hiring Our Heroes” effort to help military veterans find jobs in the civilian world.  As Dao recounts, Kevin Schmiegel, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and executive director of Hiring Our Heroes, organized a team last year to create a “Personal Branding Resume Engine,” a website that helps veterans translate their military experience into jobs that civilian employers can understand. Unveiled this week at a job fair at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan, the resume engine was developed with the help from Fortune 500 human resources managers.


Helping homeless veterans

“You know the expression ‘never leave the fallen behind’? Homelessness is the equivalent of leaving a buddy on the battlefield. They’re heroes in the shadows.” So says Joe Leal, founder of the Vet Hunters Project, a group whose mission is to track down and help homeless comrades. Leal is an Iraq-war veteran and a reservist  with the 115th Combat Service Support Battalion in South El Monte, a city outside Los Angeles, California.


How to help veterans succeed in college

As we’ve noted before, more universities and colleges are working to help military veterans adjust to college life. Even so, there is a long way to go, as Ryan Gallucci recently reminded readers of the New York Times’ “At War” blog. Gallucci, who is the deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, provides a good overview of services currently available to student veterans and suggests some ideas for improvements.


Helping veterans graduate

We’ve noted before the paucity of data available tracking how veterans perform once they enter college. Now, at the New York Times, James Dao writes about why that data is important in helping veterans face their unique challenges as students of higher education.


Wal-Mart’s plan to hire veterans

The New York Times reports this morning that Wal-Mart will announce a plan later today that will provide a job for nearly every veteran who wants one. The program, which will focus on veterans that have left the military in the previous year and did not receive a dishonorable discharge, will last for five years and will, according to the company, lead to the hiring of more than 100,000 veterans.


Do veterans graduate?

We reported in December that, even though veterans are now enrolling in colleges and other higher education programs at rates last seen right after World War II, there exists very little information on how veterans are doing once they matriculate. Roughly 70 percent of higher education institutions do not collect retention and graduation rates for undergraduate veterans. Writing earlier this week in Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain provides an update, noting that a new agreement between the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse will help provide better data on how veterans perform in college.


Single Stop for Veterans

Writing for the New York Times “At War” blog, James Dao takes a look at a new program in New York City that helps veterans and their families navigate the complex web of federal assistance programs. The Single Stop Veterans Initiative is an off-shoot of Single Stop USA, which has provided counseling to the city’s poor for more than a decade.