Archives for January 2014

Federal Agencies Partner to Protect Veterans, Service Members and their Families Using GI Bill Education Benefits








Federal Agencies Partner to Protect Veterans, Service Members and their Families Using GI Bill Education Benefits

January 30, 2014





Printable Version




New Online Complaint System Empowers Students, Strengthens Enforcement


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education and Justice, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission announced today the launch of a new online complaint system designed to collect feedback from veterans, service members and their families who are experiencing problems with educational institutions receiving funding from Federal military and veterans educational benefits programs, including benefits programs provided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the DoD Military Tuition Assistance Program.


The centralized online reporting system is designed for veterans, service members and eligible dependents to report negative experiences with educational institutions; and gives the federal government the information needed to identify and address unfair, deceptive, and misleading practices and ensure high quality academic and student support services are available for veterans, service members, and their families. 


“The online complaint system empowers veterans and their dependents and provides them a direct line to VA and our partner agencies,” said Allison A. Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veterans Affairs. “The feedback we receive from veterans, service members and their families will help us strengthen enforcement of the ‘Principles of Excellence’ for institutions of higher learning serving veterans and their families to ensure students are receiving the education benefits they have earned and deserve.” 


“Our service members and their families now have an easier and efficient way to provide feedback on their civilian educational experiences, which will ensure we have the right information to identify and address any negative practices,” said Jessica Wright, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.


Students can submit a complaint if they believe their school is failing to follow the Principles of Excellence, (i.e. unfair recruiting practices, credit transfer or change in degree requirements) through the centralized online reporting system accessed via the Department of Defense and GI Bill websites. When feedback is received, agencies will contact the school on behalf of the student and work toward a resolution. Complaints and their resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network, accessible by over 650 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for use in enhancing and coordinating law enforcement investigations.


Executive Order 13607, signed April 27, 2012, addresses reports of unfair, deceptive or misleading behavior toward Veterans, service members and their families pursuing higher education and directs agencies to establish, implement and promote compliance with “Principles of Excellence” for educational institutions receiving funding from Federal military and veterans educational benefits programs  for America’s veterans, service members and eligible dependents, including preventing abusive and deceptive recruiting practices. The new online complaint system is one of a range of tools being implemented by the federal government to ensure that service members, veterans and eligible dependents have access to meaningful information about the cost and quality of educational institutions.


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Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends



Two women sit on a bench outside talking and laughing

Laughter: The Best Medicine — Peer Support Specialist Sarah Oury (Right) shares a story with Veteran Naomi Winley at the San Diego VA.










“Calm down.”


Apparently, that’s the one thing you don’t want to say to someone who’s come to you seeking solace and advice, but whose emotions are getting a bit escalated as they talk about the pain and anger they’re feeling inside.


“De-escalating someone is an art,” said Sarah Oury, a former Army captain who now works as a peer support specialist at the San Diego VA. Her job is to provide comfort, support and hope to fellow Veterans suffering with post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges.


A Little Respect


“I find that when the Veteran feels respected and heard, the anger begins to disappear,” she explained. “Some people are good at it; some aren’t. I needed people to be really good at it with me, because I was carrying around a lot of anger after I left the military in 2006. I was diagnosed with PTSD. But people at the VA helped me, they were there for me and now I’m trying to help other Veterans like me.”


There are 11 peer support specialists at San Diego and roughly 800 at VA sites nationwide. They represent VA’s newest and perhaps most promising strategy to get Veterans struggling with mental issues to come in for help.


“You shouldn’t have to navigate your way through the VA health care system by yourself,” Oury said. “You need a guide. You need an advocate. That’s what I’m here for.”


Oury said her primary job is to simply share her personal story with her clients. “It can be very therapeutic for them and for you,” she observed. “Doing this job helps you work on your own self-recovery. Because recovery is never a done deal, it’s always an ongoing process. I’m still mending some of my own relationships.”


 I find that when the Veteran feels respected and heard, the anger begins to disappear. 


A Unique Approach


“Peer support specialists are unique, because they’re the only health care providers in VA who are trained to use their own life experiences to help their clients,” explained Dr. Christine Rufener, a staff psychologist who runs the peer support program at San Diego. “As a psychologist, I’m not able to do that because of ethical issues related to doctor-client boundaries.


“Your peer support specialist,” she added, “is someone who’s made it to the other side. They’ve recovered from their own mental health challenges, so they’re in a position to instill hope.”


‘Hope’ is something Phil Clough is just now beginning to get a grip on. The Navy Veteran was the victim of military sexual trauma back in the 1980’s and spent years drinking and drugging to numb the pain.


“I kept a secret for nearly 30 years and it almost killed me,” he said. “I put it in a box somewhere in the back of my head and tried to keep the box closed. I buried it.”


Clough admits he was near the end of his rope when he finally decided enough was enough.


“When I came to the VA for help, I was shattered,” he said. “I was suicidal. I was homicidal. I had a lot of anger.”


But then a peer support specialist named Eric showed up at his side.



A woman sitting at an office desk

Dr. Christine Rufener


All The King’s Horses


“When I first met Eric, we talked for about an hour,” Clough said. “When I come to the VA now, the first person I ask for is Eric.”


The Navy Veteran said he now has three peer support specialists who are helping him stay on course during his treatment program at the VA.


“I do what they tell me to do,” he said. “If they tell me to go see my counselor, I go see my counselor. If they tell me to go to group therapy, I go to group therapy. They put me touch with the right people who can help me.”


He added: “They did the one thing that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do. They put me back together. I still have a long way to go. I’m damaged. But if I need them I know they’ll always be there for me.”


And when you’re a peer support specialist, ‘being there’ sometimes involves more than just showing up for work at the office.


“In some cases I’ll actually go out to the Veteran’s house,” said Sarah Oury. “Sometimes, when you’re that depressed, you can’t even get out of bed. So you certainly can’t get yourself in to the VA. Someone needs to come to you. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.”


Avoiding Burn Out


Christine Rufener said this kind of dedication, however, can be a double-edged sword.


“These are highly motivated people,” she observed. “They got the help they needed from VA and now they’re very motivated to help other Veterans. But this is not easy work. It can be stressful, which is why we continue to support them. They receive personalized, individual supervision from psychologists who ensure they are taking care of themselves while they’re taking care of others.


“Let’s face it,” she added. “This kind of work can take a toll on you.”


Rufener said peer support specialists undergo 80 hours of training and must pass an exam before they can begin counseling fellow Veterans. “These are full-time positions,” she said. “There are no specific educational requirements, but this is challenging work and it takes a special kind of person to do it.”


Of course, every ambitious new initiative that gets launched is going to have some wrinkles that need ironing out, right? So is there anything about VA’s peer support program Rufener would change if she had the chance?


“Yes,” she said. “I’d hire more peer support specialists.”


To find out about a career in VA’s Peer Support Program, visit www.vacareers.va.gov/peer-to-peer/faqs.asp.






Source Article from http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/2014/January/Getting-By-With-a-Little-Help-From-Your-Friends.asp

Obama Commits to Vets Future – but Misses Urgent Retirement Issue

Obama Commits to Vets Future – but Misses Urgent Retirement Issue

CONTACT: Gretchen Andersen (212) 982-9699 or press@iava.org

Obama Commits to Vets Future – but Misses Urgent Retirement Issue

Commander-in-Chief Fails to Lead Fight to Restore Retirement Benefits

WASHINGTON, DC (January 28, 2014) – Recognizing the sacrifice of veterans, President Obama tonight addressed critical issues facing veterans returning from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan including mental health care, the VA disability claims backlog and unemployment. Yet, the President failed to address veterans’ current fight to protect military retirement benefits. Earlier today, veterans and military families protested Congressional cuts to military benefits at a morning press conference and during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.  Calling it a broken promise to those who serve, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) urged Congress to restore cuts to military retirement benefits. IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff attended the State of the Union as a guest of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and issued the following statement:

“Tonight, the Commander-in-Chief reminded our nation of its commitment to the men and women in uniform, like Cory, who have sacrificed so much. 2014 is a critical year. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, we must ensure that our country is ready to support veterans when they return home. On issues so important as mental health services, the VA disability claims backlog and unemployment, we have much work to do. Now it’s time to act on these priorities and get results.

“We are disappointed the President did not address retirement benefits for our men and women in uniform. Veterans across the country are reeling from the surprise attack to their earned benefits. We need immediate action from the President and Congress to restore the promises our country made to them and their families.  Unfortunately, on the critical issue of military retirement benefits, the President was silent. Veterans don’t want any more excuses and won’t take no for an answer. It’s time to restore the retirement cuts.”

In addition to calling on President Obama and Congress to restore cuts to military retirees, IAVA has advocated for other priorities for veterans, including:

    • — Combating suicide by strengthening mental health care at a time when an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
    • — Re-focusing attention on ending the VA backlog, which still stands at more than 400,000.
    • — Fighting military sexual assault, particularly passing the Military Justice Improvement Act
    • — Passing advance funding for all of VA so veterans services aren’t jeopardized by future government shutdowns.

    Note to media: Please contact Press@IAVA.org if you would like to speak with Paul Rieckhoff or another IAVA spokesperson to discuss the State of the Union.

    Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org) is the nation’s first and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and has more than 270,000 Member Veterans and civilian supporters nationwide. Celebrating its tenth year, IAVA recently received the highest rating – four-stars – from Charity Navigator, America’s largest charity evaluator.

    Automation Speeds Benefits Processing for Post-9/11 GI Bill Students








    Automation Speeds Benefits Processing for Post-9/11 GI Bill Students

    January 29, 2014





    Printable Version




    Students see improvement in turn-around time for education claims


    WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) decreased the time it takes to process requests for GI Bill benefits for returning students by nearly 50 percent compared to fiscal year 2012.  VA attributes the faster process in large part to improved claims automation that uses rules-based, industry-standard technologies to deliver Veterans’ benefits.  


    “We are happy to report that our students are seeing a reduction in the amount of time it takes to process their education claims thanks to an automated, digital process making it easier for Veterans, Servicemembers and their families to attend post-secondary education and enroll for continuing semesters,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “This automation has not only improved education benefits processing, it has allowed us to shift resources to other priorities, like improving timeliness of disability compensation decisions. It’s a great example of how technology is helping us to transform the way we do business and better serve Veterans.”  


    The Post-9/11 GI Bill builds on the great legacy of the original GI Bill, giving Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and their families the opportunity to reach their educational goals, find a good job and improve their lives. The automation technology, part of VA’s Post-9/11GI Bill processing system called “Long Term Solution” (LTS), was implemented in September 2012.  This technology has more than 1,700 calculations and rules that support benefits delivery for eligible Veterans, Servicemembers, and dependents. Up to six distinct payments per beneficiary can be calculated automatically per term, including: housing, books and supplies stipend, tuition and fees and Yellow Ribbon payments.


    In addition, a variety of different types of education and training programs are supported by the automated technology, including: graduate, undergraduate, non-college degree, correspondence, licensing and certification, apprenticeship and on-the-job training. 


    The improvement in timeliness was achieved despite a 27 percent increase in incoming education claims – 3.4 million in fiscal year 2013 compared to 2.7 million the prior year. Currently, VA is processing initial claims for new students in an average of less than 20 days, and supplemental claims for returning students in less than 8 days, down from 33 days and 16 days respectively since LTS was first fielded.


    VA has provided more than $35.6 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments to over 1.1 million Veterans, Servicemembers, and their families, and to the universities, colleges, and trade schools they attend. In 2014, VA will continue to improve education benefits delivery, through additional automation, tracking of beneficiary graduation rates, and the release of new tools to help beneficiaries best utilize VA education benefits, including the Choosing a School Guide, and CareerScope.


    For more information about VA education benefits, visit www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.


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    The Washington Post- At Home Depot, building a strong corps of veterans

    The Washington Post- At Home Depot, building a strong corps of veterans

    Donald Sullivan strolled contentedly amid the bustle of contractors wheeling carts stacked with lumber at the Home Depot in Hyattsville.

    “It’s fast and furious in the lumber aisle,” said Sullivan, operations manager for the store. “Organized chaos. I love it.”

    The morning hours, when contractors pick up supplies for construction jobs, are often the busiest, and Sullivan, a former Army officer, makes a point of being on hand to direct traffic.

    Sullivan saw combat with the 3rd Armored Division during the 1991 Gulf War. As a reservist, he was mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and stayed on duty for five years with a brigade that trained soldiers deploying overseas.

    For Sullivan, trading Army green for Home Depot orange has not been a problem. The company, he said, holds many of the attributes that attracted him to military service — a sense of mission, camaraderie, and enough unpredictability to keep the job interesting — minus hostile fire.

    “Someone with a military background feels comfortable in this environment, because a lot is happening,” he said.

    More than 10 percent of Home Depot’s 300,000 employees have a military background. The company estimates that it employs more than 35,000 veterans or members of the military serving in the National Guard or reserves. About 1,500 employees are deployed on active duty at any given time, according to the company.

    Frank Blake, chief executive of Home Depot, said the company has found that veterans are often well suited to work for a company where employees are encouraged to think of their job as a mission.

    “You are leading a group of people,” Blake said in an interview. “You have to link everyone in a common set of goals. Folks who’ve had military experience understand that. The skill sets are terrific.”

    Many companies often tout themselves as being veteran-friendly, particularly around Veterans Day, when they blanket the media with details about their efforts to provide veterans with everything from jobs to free cups of coffee.

    But veteran advocates say Home Depot deserves credit for its range of initiatives, from hiring veterans to its philanthropic efforts in battling veterans’ homelessness to its employees’ volunteer efforts.

    “Home Depot sets a standard, because they take a holistic approach,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive of Operation Homefront, a group that aids military families.

    One year ago, Home Depot launched an initiative called “Mission: Transition” to help service members get jobs in the civilian workforce, offering coaching on issues such as resume-writing and interview preparation. The company also established a Web-based skills translator to match service members’ military experience with civilian jobs.

    With unemployment still high for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, hiring initiatives by large companies are critical, advocates say.

    “There’s only so much capacity in small and mid-sized firms,” said Derek Bennett, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “You need to have companies with a national reach like Home Depot participating.”

    As a whole, veterans do well in the U.S. job force. The unemployment rate for all U.S. veterans was 6.9 percent in September, lower than the 7.2 percent for the population as a whole.

    But unemployment for the post-9/11 generation of veterans stood at 10 percent in October, up from 7.7 percent in July. The numbers tend to fluctuate each month, and the long-term trend is slightly down, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs

    Home Depot hired more than 10,000 veterans last year. As part of the Joining Forces campaign led by first lady Michelle Obama, the company committed to increase veteran hiring by 10 percent each year over the next five years, which would mean about 55,000 over that time period.

    Other major companies have also pledged to hire large numbers of veterans, including Wal-Mart, which committed to employing 100,000 veterans by the end of 2018, and McDonald’s, which pledged to hire 100,000 in the next three years. AT&T announced Wednesday that it is doubling its hiring goal for veterans to 10,000 for the next five years

    The Obama administration has set up tax credits that encourage companies to hire veterans.

    But noted Blake, “We don’t hire for tax credits, we hire for the long term.”

    Other initiatives include the Home Depot Foundation, a separate charitable entity that receives much of its funding from the company and has committed $80 million to support veterans’ housing initiatives.

    Kelly Caffarelli, president of the foundation, said the organization tries to fill “the gaps where current funding isn’t meeting the need. The government can’t do it all.”

    Team Depot, a volunteer program made up of Home Depot employees, completed 550 building projects for veterans in 2012, including refurbishing homes and building ramps for the disabled.

    The company has played a key role in providing logistical support and supplies for Team Rubicon, a veteran organization that responds to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, according to William McNulty, co-founder of the nonprofit group.

    “Home Depot doesn’t just want to write a check,” McNulty said. “They want to get involved in the operation.”

    Blake did not serve in the military, but his son, Frank Blake Jr. , served as a signal officer with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in the volatile area around Tikrit after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His son’s experience helped shape the elder Blake’s view of how the company could support veterans.

    “There are a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have understood, but for being around my son and his colleagues,” Blake said.

    The younger Blake enrolled in a Home Depot junior officer management program after leaving the Army and is now a district manager for the company in Georgia.

    [link]

    The Washington Post- At Home Depot, building a strong corps of veterans

    The Washington Post- At Home Depot, building a strong corps of veterans

    Donald Sullivan strolled contentedly amid the bustle of contractors wheeling carts stacked with lumber at the Home Depot in Hyattsville.

    “It’s fast and furious in the lumber aisle,” said Sullivan, operations manager for the store. “Organized chaos. I love it.”

    The morning hours, when contractors pick up supplies for construction jobs, are often the busiest, and Sullivan, a former Army officer, makes a point of being on hand to direct traffic.

    Sullivan saw combat with the 3rd Armored Division during the 1991 Gulf War. As a reservist, he was mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and stayed on duty for five years with a brigade that trained soldiers deploying overseas.

    For Sullivan, trading Army green for Home Depot orange has not been a problem. The company, he said, holds many of the attributes that attracted him to military service — a sense of mission, camaraderie, and enough unpredictability to keep the job interesting — minus hostile fire.

    “Someone with a military background feels comfortable in this environment, because a lot is happening,” he said.

    More than 10 percent of Home Depot’s 300,000 employees have a military background. The company estimates that it employs more than 35,000 veterans or members of the military serving in the National Guard or reserves. About 1,500 employees are deployed on active duty at any given time, according to the company.

    Frank Blake, chief executive of Home Depot, said the company has found that veterans are often well suited to work for a company where employees are encouraged to think of their job as a mission.

    “You are leading a group of people,” Blake said in an interview. “You have to link everyone in a common set of goals. Folks who’ve had military experience understand that. The skill sets are terrific.”

    Many companies often tout themselves as being veteran-friendly, particularly around Veterans Day, when they blanket the media with details about their efforts to provide veterans with everything from jobs to free cups of coffee.

    But veteran advocates say Home Depot deserves credit for its range of initiatives, from hiring veterans to its philanthropic efforts in battling veterans’ homelessness to its employees’ volunteer efforts.

    “Home Depot sets a standard, because they take a holistic approach,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive of Operation Homefront, a group that aids military families.

    One year ago, Home Depot launched an initiative called “Mission: Transition” to help service members get jobs in the civilian workforce, offering coaching on issues such as resume-writing and interview preparation. The company also established a Web-based skills translator to match service members’ military experience with civilian jobs.

    With unemployment still high for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, hiring initiatives by large companies are critical, advocates say.

    “There’s only so much capacity in small and mid-sized firms,” said Derek Bennett, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “You need to have companies with a national reach like Home Depot participating.”

    As a whole, veterans do well in the U.S. job force. The unemployment rate for all U.S. veterans was 6.9 percent in September, lower than the 7.2 percent for the population as a whole.

    But unemployment for the post-9/11 generation of veterans stood at 10 percent in October, up from 7.7 percent in July. The numbers tend to fluctuate each month, and the long-term trend is slightly down, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs

    Home Depot hired more than 10,000 veterans last year. As part of the Joining Forces campaign led by first lady Michelle Obama, the company committed to increase veteran hiring by 10 percent each year over the next five years, which would mean about 55,000 over that time period.

    Other major companies have also pledged to hire large numbers of veterans, including Wal-Mart, which committed to employing 100,000 veterans by the end of 2018, and McDonald’s, which pledged to hire 100,000 in the next three years. AT&T announced Wednesday that it is doubling its hiring goal for veterans to 10,000 for the next five years

    The Obama administration has set up tax credits that encourage companies to hire veterans.

    But noted Blake, “We don’t hire for tax credits, we hire for the long term.”

    Other initiatives include the Home Depot Foundation, a separate charitable entity that receives much of its funding from the company and has committed $80 million to support veterans’ housing initiatives.

    Kelly Caffarelli, president of the foundation, said the organization tries to fill “the gaps where current funding isn’t meeting the need. The government can’t do it all.”

    Team Depot, a volunteer program made up of Home Depot employees, completed 550 building projects for veterans in 2012, including refurbishing homes and building ramps for the disabled.

    The company has played a key role in providing logistical support and supplies for Team Rubicon, a veteran organization that responds to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, according to William McNulty, co-founder of the nonprofit group.

    “Home Depot doesn’t just want to write a check,” McNulty said. “They want to get involved in the operation.”

    Blake did not serve in the military, but his son, Frank Blake Jr. , served as a signal officer with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in the volatile area around Tikrit after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His son’s experience helped shape the elder Blake’s view of how the company could support veterans.

    “There are a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have understood, but for being around my son and his colleagues,” Blake said.

    The younger Blake enrolled in a Home Depot junior officer management program after leaving the Army and is now a district manager for the company in Georgia.

    [link]

    NBC News- Celebrating veterans

    NBC News- Celebrating veterans

    Tom Tarantino talks about the events on Veterans Day and the current VA backlog crisis.

    Christian Science Monitor- More Iraq, Afghanistan vets going from service member to member of Congress

    Christian Science Monitor- More Iraq, Afghanistan vets going from service member to member of Congress

    When members of the 113th Congress took their oaths of office earlier this year, they ushered into Washington the largest wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans since those wars began more than a decade ago.

    Today, a total of 16 members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, including the first two female combat veterans ever to be elected to Congress.

    That makes them the largest contingent of former service members to come to Capitol Hill since the 1980s, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

    Since they have been voted into office, these new lawmakers “have been incredibly influential,” in helping to drive through legislation to improve care for veterans and those currently serving in the military, says Tom Tarantino, policy associate for the IAVA.

    They have also been among the most vocal critics of costly Pentagon weapons systems of questionable necessity, and they’ve helped to drive debate on national security issues in ways that may seem, at first glance, counterintuitive.

    This has included questioning – and, for most, ultimately opposing – US intervention in Syria. Only two lawmakers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, support US military action there. The other 14, who include a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, either remain skeptical or oppose action altogether.

    “Anytime someone has been in combat and has been on the ground and knows the net result of these decisions, it definitely gives you a perspective that influences you,” says Mr. Tarantino, a former Army captain who served as a platoon leader in Baghdad. “For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a very visceral and very recent perspective on combat. We know more than anyone what it’s going to look like.”

    Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, who lost both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, is a freshman lawmaker and a combat veteran who remains skeptical of US intervention in Syria.

    “I’ve heard discussion before that this type of thing is going to be a limited attack and it will be done in a short amount of time,” she told reporters in September. “War is messy. War is never that simple.”

    Veterans often bring a similar skepticism to questions about Pentagon spending. That’s often because veterans “can actually stand up and talk about defense spending in a way that will be realistic without being attacked for lack of patriotism or not being strong on defense,” Ms. Duckworth told the Associated Press last year.

    During the 30 years he served as an officer in the US Marines, Greg Raths flew fighter jets. Now he is running as a Republican for a seat in Congress representing southern California’s 45th District.

    This experience gives him a clear perspective on Pentagon weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet, he says, which has been plagued with billions of dollars in cost overruns.

    “It’s the military industrial machine running this whole thing, but this plane is not performing,” Mr. Raths says. “I’d be more open to cutting some of these programs than pouring more money into them.”

    Raths is part of the next wave of veterans running for Congress in 2014. This already-forming group also includes Kirk Jorgensen, a US Marine who deployed to Iraq and elsewhere six times during his 10 years of service and is now running in California’s 52nd District.

    Mr. Jorgensen recalls filling sandbags and putting them on the floors of Humvees before they were properly armored, in an effort to deflect the blasts of roadside bombs. His unit put them on the hoods of their vehicles, too, “so the hood wouldn’t fly up and crush you.”

    Having dealt with such shortages in equipment during wartime, he is frustrated with the propensity of Congress to fund expensive weapons systems that the military expressly does not want.

    “We’re building tanks the Army hasn’t asked for, and transporting them to the desert, so that members of Congress can get themselves reelected and provide the jobs for their districts,” Jorgensen says.

    “This frustrates men and women in the military. In some cases, we didn’t even have the proper flak jackets.”

    Jorgensen has signed a three-term limit pledge. The point, he says, is to be less beholden to corporate interests that often keep politicians in office, and more responsive to the citizens being represented.

    If it all sounds a bit idealistic, Jorgensen says he recognizes the challenges of running for office as a veteran. Often, he notes, because vets deploy and move often, “military men and women don’t establish the roots necessary to build a constituency.”

    There’s a perception, too, that “vets show up with big hearts, great ideas, but not a lot of ‘oomph’ when it comes to money-raising.”

    But the issues America faces now are too important not to try to get more vets in office, Jorgensen says.

    This includes fighting a war on terror that he sees as eroding US constitutional rights.

    As a US Marine, Jorgensen was tapped to go to the Central Intelligence Agency’s “farm” to train to be a case officer. He was then assigned to capture “people indicted for war crimes,” or PIFWCs.

    He briefed Madeleine Albright, then secretary of State, and other top leaders about an organization called “the base,” later known as Al Qaeda.

    Even though he understands the threats posed by terrorists clearly, he says he was “horrified” when he learned that America was using drones to target US citizens in the war on terror.

    “A US person is a US person, and at some point we need to draw a line about when we deploy weapons on US persons,” he says.

    It is a “red line” that America has crossed, he warns, and it requires more congressional oversight.

    “The US Constitution needs to come into play. If we have the capability to use UAVs to take out vehicles in Yemen – if we’re willing to do that, why can’t we drop a team and put [a US citizen] in flexicuffs and drag them away?” he adds, noting that this is what he did when he was assigned to capture PIFWCs, often in the middle of the night.

    “And who is it that decides which US citizens get rolled up and who gets killed?”

    In addition to questioning American policies with which they are intimately familiar, veterans say they hope they can begin to change attitudes in a bitterly divided Congress.

    “You can educate your peers: You can do it over coffee, you can do it by storytelling,” Jorgensen says. “You tell them the way you feel and the way you’re going to vote. You don’t do it in eight-second sound bites that get people all riled up. You have legitimate conversations rather than constant debate.”

    Sometimes, they can begin conversations that Congress simply was not having before, says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization.

    The fact that female combat veterans, for example, are now serving in Congress “is to me the really historic story,” she says.

    She cites Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) of Hawaii, who has supported bipartisan efforts to reform the military justice system in the wake of a surge of sexual assault reports.

    As more female veterans run for Congress, that could further spur positive change for the military and for the nation, Ms. Bhagwati says. “We have seen that when there are groups of women legislators working on issues, change happens.”

    Indeed, more female veterans are expected to run in 2014. Martha McSally is the first woman to fly in combat, and after narrowly losing a bid for Gabrielle Giffords’s Arizona seat in 2012, Ms. McSally, a Republican, is running again next year.

    When McSally was a major in the Air Force in 2001, she brought a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for forcing her to wear a head scarf, sit in the back seat of cars, and be accompanied by men at all times when she was stationed in Saudi Arabia.

    “I’m a fighter pilot, and we tend to have an in-your-face, you know, Type A personality that raises issues and confronts them when they’re nonsensical,” she told NPR in 2002.

    The Pentagon changed its policy.

    Having someone like McSally on the House Armed Services Committee “would be a huge bonus, even though she may not agree with everything we do,” Bhagwati says.

    “One day, when a woman vet takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee – and it’s going to happen – you’re going to see major changes in the national security conversation,” she adds.

    Yet even as the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Congress rises, the overall number of veterans is down.

    The Senate has 18 veterans, compared with a peak of 81 in 1977. That’s the lowest number of veterans since World War II, according to the Senate Historical Office.

    The House, which has 88 veterans, is down from a high of 347 in 1977, according to the Military Officers Association of America.

    Bringing more veterans into Congress could help usher in an era of renewed bipartisan cooperation, candidates say. The military, after all, was designed to build camaraderie and strong units that fight against a common enemy, not against one other.

    “Our politics today has turned so divisive it’s no longer leadership; it’s two teams going against each other,” Jorgensen says. “And the military feels like they are caught in the middle.”

    Many veterans identify more closely with a fellow vet than they do with a political party, Jorgensen notes.

    Having more veterans in Congress who have served in America’s ongoing war could be a valuable reminder, he adds, of “what service is supposed to be.”

    [link]

    Christian Science Monitor- More Iraq, Afghanistan vets going from service member to member of Congress

    Christian Science Monitor- More Iraq, Afghanistan vets going from service member to member of Congress

    When members of the 113th Congress took their oaths of office earlier this year, they ushered into Washington the largest wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans since those wars began more than a decade ago.

    Today, a total of 16 members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, including the first two female combat veterans ever to be elected to Congress.

    That makes them the largest contingent of former service members to come to Capitol Hill since the 1980s, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

    Since they have been voted into office, these new lawmakers “have been incredibly influential,” in helping to drive through legislation to improve care for veterans and those currently serving in the military, says Tom Tarantino, policy associate for the IAVA.

    They have also been among the most vocal critics of costly Pentagon weapons systems of questionable necessity, and they’ve helped to drive debate on national security issues in ways that may seem, at first glance, counterintuitive.

    This has included questioning – and, for most, ultimately opposing – US intervention in Syria. Only two lawmakers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, support US military action there. The other 14, who include a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, either remain skeptical or oppose action altogether.

    “Anytime someone has been in combat and has been on the ground and knows the net result of these decisions, it definitely gives you a perspective that influences you,” says Mr. Tarantino, a former Army captain who served as a platoon leader in Baghdad. “For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a very visceral and very recent perspective on combat. We know more than anyone what it’s going to look like.”

    Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, who lost both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, is a freshman lawmaker and a combat veteran who remains skeptical of US intervention in Syria.

    “I’ve heard discussion before that this type of thing is going to be a limited attack and it will be done in a short amount of time,” she told reporters in September. “War is messy. War is never that simple.”

    Veterans often bring a similar skepticism to questions about Pentagon spending. That’s often because veterans “can actually stand up and talk about defense spending in a way that will be realistic without being attacked for lack of patriotism or not being strong on defense,” Ms. Duckworth told the Associated Press last year.

    During the 30 years he served as an officer in the US Marines, Greg Raths flew fighter jets. Now he is running as a Republican for a seat in Congress representing southern California’s 45th District.

    This experience gives him a clear perspective on Pentagon weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet, he says, which has been plagued with billions of dollars in cost overruns.

    “It’s the military industrial machine running this whole thing, but this plane is not performing,” Mr. Raths says. “I’d be more open to cutting some of these programs than pouring more money into them.”

    Raths is part of the next wave of veterans running for Congress in 2014. This already-forming group also includes Kirk Jorgensen, a US Marine who deployed to Iraq and elsewhere six times during his 10 years of service and is now running in California’s 52nd District.

    Mr. Jorgensen recalls filling sandbags and putting them on the floors of Humvees before they were properly armored, in an effort to deflect the blasts of roadside bombs. His unit put them on the hoods of their vehicles, too, “so the hood wouldn’t fly up and crush you.”

    Having dealt with such shortages in equipment during wartime, he is frustrated with the propensity of Congress to fund expensive weapons systems that the military expressly does not want.

    “We’re building tanks the Army hasn’t asked for, and transporting them to the desert, so that members of Congress can get themselves reelected and provide the jobs for their districts,” Jorgensen says.

    “This frustrates men and women in the military. In some cases, we didn’t even have the proper flak jackets.”

    Jorgensen has signed a three-term limit pledge. The point, he says, is to be less beholden to corporate interests that often keep politicians in office, and more responsive to the citizens being represented.

    If it all sounds a bit idealistic, Jorgensen says he recognizes the challenges of running for office as a veteran. Often, he notes, because vets deploy and move often, “military men and women don’t establish the roots necessary to build a constituency.”

    There’s a perception, too, that “vets show up with big hearts, great ideas, but not a lot of ‘oomph’ when it comes to money-raising.”

    But the issues America faces now are too important not to try to get more vets in office, Jorgensen says.

    This includes fighting a war on terror that he sees as eroding US constitutional rights.

    As a US Marine, Jorgensen was tapped to go to the Central Intelligence Agency’s “farm” to train to be a case officer. He was then assigned to capture “people indicted for war crimes,” or PIFWCs.

    He briefed Madeleine Albright, then secretary of State, and other top leaders about an organization called “the base,” later known as Al Qaeda.

    Even though he understands the threats posed by terrorists clearly, he says he was “horrified” when he learned that America was using drones to target US citizens in the war on terror.

    “A US person is a US person, and at some point we need to draw a line about when we deploy weapons on US persons,” he says.

    It is a “red line” that America has crossed, he warns, and it requires more congressional oversight.

    “The US Constitution needs to come into play. If we have the capability to use UAVs to take out vehicles in Yemen – if we’re willing to do that, why can’t we drop a team and put [a US citizen] in flexicuffs and drag them away?” he adds, noting that this is what he did when he was assigned to capture PIFWCs, often in the middle of the night.

    “And who is it that decides which US citizens get rolled up and who gets killed?”

    In addition to questioning American policies with which they are intimately familiar, veterans say they hope they can begin to change attitudes in a bitterly divided Congress.

    “You can educate your peers: You can do it over coffee, you can do it by storytelling,” Jorgensen says. “You tell them the way you feel and the way you’re going to vote. You don’t do it in eight-second sound bites that get people all riled up. You have legitimate conversations rather than constant debate.”

    Sometimes, they can begin conversations that Congress simply was not having before, says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization.

    The fact that female combat veterans, for example, are now serving in Congress “is to me the really historic story,” she says.

    She cites Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) of Hawaii, who has supported bipartisan efforts to reform the military justice system in the wake of a surge of sexual assault reports.

    As more female veterans run for Congress, that could further spur positive change for the military and for the nation, Ms. Bhagwati says. “We have seen that when there are groups of women legislators working on issues, change happens.”

    Indeed, more female veterans are expected to run in 2014. Martha McSally is the first woman to fly in combat, and after narrowly losing a bid for Gabrielle Giffords’s Arizona seat in 2012, Ms. McSally, a Republican, is running again next year.

    When McSally was a major in the Air Force in 2001, she brought a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for forcing her to wear a head scarf, sit in the back seat of cars, and be accompanied by men at all times when she was stationed in Saudi Arabia.

    “I’m a fighter pilot, and we tend to have an in-your-face, you know, Type A personality that raises issues and confronts them when they’re nonsensical,” she told NPR in 2002.

    The Pentagon changed its policy.

    Having someone like McSally on the House Armed Services Committee “would be a huge bonus, even though she may not agree with everything we do,” Bhagwati says.

    “One day, when a woman vet takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee – and it’s going to happen – you’re going to see major changes in the national security conversation,” she adds.

    Yet even as the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Congress rises, the overall number of veterans is down.

    The Senate has 18 veterans, compared with a peak of 81 in 1977. That’s the lowest number of veterans since World War II, according to the Senate Historical Office.

    The House, which has 88 veterans, is down from a high of 347 in 1977, according to the Military Officers Association of America.

    Bringing more veterans into Congress could help usher in an era of renewed bipartisan cooperation, candidates say. The military, after all, was designed to build camaraderie and strong units that fight against a common enemy, not against one other.

    “Our politics today has turned so divisive it’s no longer leadership; it’s two teams going against each other,” Jorgensen says. “And the military feels like they are caught in the middle.”

    Many veterans identify more closely with a fellow vet than they do with a political party, Jorgensen notes.

    Having more veterans in Congress who have served in America’s ongoing war could be a valuable reminder, he adds, of “what service is supposed to be.”

    [link]

    Vets Protest Retirement Benefits Cuts

    Vets Protest Retirement Benefits Cuts

    CONTACT: Gretchen Andersen (212) 982-9699 or press@iava.org

    IAVA members protest a broken promise at Senate hearing in Washington

    Call on President Obama to support repeal efforts during State of the Union 

    WASHINGTON, DC (January 27, 2014) – Ahead of a critical Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military retirement changes and before the State of the Union address, veterans and military families will protest Congressional cuts to military benefits Tuesday morning. December’s bipartisan budget agreement included unprecedented cuts to military retirees. Since then, groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have fought for a total repeal of the retirement cuts, arguing that Congress shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of those who have already sacrificed the most. IAVA members affected by these cuts will participate in a morning news conference with U.S. Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Dean Heller (R-NV), and then will attend the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.  IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff will also attend the State of the Union. 

    Tuesday’s press conference will be held at 8:30 am in G-11 Dirksen Senate Office Building, near where the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing will be held.

    IAVA called on President Obama to support repeal efforts during Tuesday’s address.

    “Congress is breaking America’s promise with our men and women in uniform. These military retirement cuts are unprecedented and outrageous. Tomorrow on Capitol Hill, Congress and the President will hear directly from veterans and military families who are affected by these cuts,” said IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “They can look our members in the eyes and explain why they voted for a 20 percent decrease in their earned benefits in a time of war. In the State of the Union, veterans expect to hear the President clearly state that he stands with us in opposition to these cuts. We need his support in pressuring Congress to fix this immediately. Our troops overseas in the combat zone are watching this issue closely. This is not the time for the President to be silent. ”

    Congress broke its promise to veterans with critical cuts to military retirees’ benefits. As a result of the bipartisan, backroom deal made in December and included in the omnibus budget, Congress will reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment for most military retirees and survivors, leading to a 20 percent cut to retirement benefits over the course of their lives. For a retired Army Sergeant First Class (E-7) that could mean the loss of $83,000 in retirement savings. 

    IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff will attend the State of the Union on behalf of IAVA as a guest of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). In addition to calling on President Obama to support efforts to repeal cuts to military retirees, there are other key issues veterans need the President to address:

    Fighting military sexual assault, particularly passing the Military Justice Improvement Act

    Passing advance funding for all of VA so veterans services aren’t jeopardized by future government shutdowns.

    Recommitting the nation to combat military and veterans suicides at a time when at least 22 veterans a day take their own life.

    Re-focusing attention on ending the VA backlog, which still stands at more than 400,000.

    “Veterans have earned more than a single line of gratitude in the State of the Union,” Rieckhoff said. “After more than a decade of sacrifice, veterans need Congress and the President to take action on critical issues facing the community. “ 

    Note to media: Please contact Press@IAVA.org if you would like to speak with Paul Rieckhoff or another IAVA spokesperson before or after the State of the Union.

    Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org) is the nation’s first and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and has more than 270,000 Member Veterans and civilian supporters nationwide. Celebrating its tenth year, IAVA recently received the highest rating – four-stars – from Charity Navigator, America’s largest charity evaluator.

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