The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) monitors all legislation affecting veterans, alerts VFW membership to key legislation under consideration and actively lobbies Congress and the administration on veterans issues. With VFW’s own priority goals in mind, combined with the support of 2 million members of VFW and its auxiliaries, our voice on “the Hill” cannot be ignored!

Friday, April 11, 2014

VFW Joins Capitol Seminar on Rural Veterans

On Tuesday, your VFW was on hand at the U.S. Capitol for a seminar hosted by The Home Depot Foundation and the Housing Assistance Council to discuss the unique challenges faced by rural veterans and present the council's new report on housing rural veterans in America, entitled “From Service to Shelter.”

The Housing Assistance Council report, which was supported through The Home Depot Foundation, qualitatively and quantitatively studied the unique characteristics of rural veterans and the challenges in delivering services to meet their needs. To read the full report, click here.

In the report, the council points out that more than a quarter of the American veteran population lives in rural America, and that rural veterans tend to be older than their non-veteran counterparts. The report also recognizes that rural veterans face significant barriers in accessing services, and that the needs of the rural veterans’ community will change over the next few years as the military downsizes.

Still, the report acknowledges that rural veterans usually fare better economically than their non-veteran peers, often having lower poverty rates; higher educational attainment; higher income; and lower overall unemployment.

The Housing Assistance Council acknowledged the recent efforts by VA and its partner federal agencies in combating veteran homelessness and other socio-economic challenges. However, the council acknowledged that as the aging rural veterans’ population enters its senior years, more challenges will emerge in accessing health care and other services. The council recommended more flexibility in programs designed to serve rural veterans, allowing the agencies responsible for delivering the services to adapt to the needs of an ever-changing and diverse rural veterans’ population.

The seminar also featured two panels to discuss federal resources for rural veterans and examples of local programs that have helped satisfy the needs of the community. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; as well as Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., were all on hand to offer the Congressional perspective to the experiences of rural student veterans and to discuss potential solutions.

The Home Depot Foundation has been working aggressively over the last two years to identify and address challenges in veterans’ housing. By working through the Housing Assistance Council, The Home Depot Foundation has worked with community partners to deliver new kinds of services to rural veterans.

Your VFW has been a vocal advocate to end veterans’ homelessness, and was one of the leading voices calling for the formation of the VA’s Office of Rural Health, which coordinates health care delivery for veterans who do not live near a VA health care facility. The VFW will continue to work with VA, its partner agencies, Congress and the philanthropic community to find ways to better serve rural and remote veterans. Check back regularly for updates.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

VFW Defends Study on Student Veteran Outcomes

VFW originally sent this letter to the editor of Military Times in response to harsh criticism to the recent Million Records Project from Student Veterans of America (SVA), National Student Clearinghouse and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which reported on student veteran outcomes since 9/11. We’re guessing it was too long to publish in the newspaper, so we wanted to share it here:

To the editor,

I shouldn’t have to write this letter. In fact, the military and veterans’ community should be applauding Student Veterans of America for finally publishing some statistically-valid information on how our veterans fare in college. But sadly, no. Critics are still beating the drum, trying to portray our student veterans as misguided failures in higher education.

In the recent “Irregularities cited in student vet study” by George Altman, a veterans’ program director from University of Kentucky, Anthony Dotson, asserted that SVA’s study was “at best, misleading and, at worst, dishonest” because for-profit colleges were underrepresented in the survey. I don’t get it. First, more than 80 percent of student veterans who attended the largest for-profit schools were sampled in the study, and the biggest kid on the block, University of Phoenix, has been reporting its data to the National Student Clearinghouse, or NSC, since 1997.

More importantly, though, why does this conversation always have to be about for-profits? After all, NSC keeps records on 98 percent of all students in higher education. To me that sounds like a quality baseline from which to evaluate student veteran performance. If our goal is to make the college-bound veteran an informed consumer – but we have no data on veterans – we need to start somewhere. That’s why public-private partnerships like the Million Records Project are so important.

Critics who call the report incomplete are absolutely right. Even SVA’s head researcher will tell you that. But that’s because nobody has bothered to track student veterans before. Around the office my colleagues and I joke that by Department of Education standards, none of us are considered a college graduate. And when the Department of Education floated the idea to track veterans during a 2011 technical review panel, the assembled academics couldn’t even agree on how to define veterans.

We should commend SVA for demonstrating how little we actually know about today’s student veterans. We should also applaud them for steering the conversation on veterans’ education in a direction that portrays our student veterans as savvy future leaders worthy of our nation’s investment.

Make no mistake, I hold no sympathy for schools that use predatory recruiting practices to coerce enrollment out of veterans who have no business in college. If a school lies to veterans or manipulates them into enrollment, regulators should screw them to the wall. But it’s irresponsible to limit this conversation to the for-profit industry. After speaking to student veterans from around the country, I have seen similar problems at community colleges and even reputable non-profit universities.

Instead of picking winners or losers in higher education, or disparaging veterans who may choose non-traditional paths to higher education, we should identify barriers to student veteran success, and work to address those. If we keep pushing for better data along with improved transitional education and reliable resources to report fraud, waste and abuse, college-bound veterans will make good choices.

We’re smart. That’s why we attend schools like Columbia and Georgetown in droves. We’re also capable of making good decisions when we’re given good information. That’s why the military trusts us with guns. But I guess that’s not good enough for some. I really didn’t want to have to write this letter, but as a Post-9/11-era student veteran, who was likely counted in the Million Records Project, I couldn’t sit by and listen to critics bash a report that finally shows that veterans can succeed.

Ryan Gallucci is an Iraq War veteran and deputy legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

House Discusses VA’s Response Time to Congressional Inquiries

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This week your VFW was on hand for a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing addressing long wait times for VA to respond to Congressional requests. New VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who was confirmed by the Senate in February, was the only witness before the committee.

To read Gibson’s prepared remarks, click here.

To view a webcast of the hearing, click here.

The issue of unanswered Congressional requests has strained the trust between VA and the committee. Committee members expressed their concerns regarding the matter by providing examples and then inquiring about the delay in the response.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., noted that Gibson’s testimony provided a positive outlook on the potential for change in VA in terms of providing testimony on time and promptly answering Congressional requests. Miller calculated that the average number of days a Congressional request sits idle with VA is 143 days. Three requests remain from 2012 and the oldest request is pending for more than 600 days.

In prior hearings, VA officials explained that the agency receives thousands of requests from Capitol Hill, and that the agency has difficulty in answering so many. Miller reiterated the importance of the committee’s oversight of VA and explained that the department is responsible for providing “complete, accurate, and timely answers,” and that pushing the issue through VA’s chain of command might eventually solve the problem.

In his testimony, Gibson acknowledged that VA has plenty of work to do. He said that VA is, “built on a foundation of trust,” and that anything that erodes this trust does tangible harm to veterans. While standing by the side of VA and defending its successes, Gibson commended Congress for its role in the matter, and suggested ways to improve the relationship between the VA and Congress through both formal and informal meetings that would allow the committee and VA to interact in lighter and more constructive atmospheres.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., expressed the deepest disappointment, citing an example of a request he made last year that is still unanswered. Others, such as Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., and Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, sought to flesh out clear and concise responses from Gibson. Bilirakis inquired about the nature of answering requests, whether they were prioritized or answered in the order they arrived. Wenstrup asked for greater communication between the VA and the committee, as the current environment may feel pressured.

The committee also discussed other problems, such as the employment of potentially disruptive VA employees and mental health. Gibson also predicted that the recent Fort Hood incident will invigorate further talks on Veterans’ mental healthcare.

Your VFW remains committed to improving the connection between VA, Congress, and most importantly, veterans. New veterans’ issues will continue to emerge as the conflict in Afghanistan draws down, and both VA and Congress will have an obligation to address these issues in a timely manner. Check back regularly for updates.

For more information on new VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, click here.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

VFW Calls on Congress to Extend VRAP

This week your VFW joined Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., the American Legion, and The Retired Enlisted Association, or TREA, for a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, calling on Congress to extend the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP. VRAP is an education benefit program for unemployed veterans ages 35-60 that the VFW helped to commission through the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. Through VRAP, older veterans who are ineligible for other VA education programs can receive up to a year of Montgomery GI Bill-style benefits to participate in a certificate or associate’s degree program in a high demand industry. VRAP was authorized to deliver training to 99,000 eligible veterans over two years – an authorization that is set to expire on March 31.

Brownley recently introduced the Help Hire Our Heroes Act, a bill that would extend VRAP by six months, allowing veterans currently enrolled in the program to use more of their available benefits and offering an opportunity for more eligible veterans to enroll in training. Original co-sponsors Reps. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., also joined the press conference to explain why extending the program was important to them. VFW Deputy Legislative Director Ryan Gallucci touted the merits of VRAP and called on Congress to quickly pass an extension.

“VRAP is an example of good governance because it offers a hand-up to unemployed veterans, helping them acquire the skills they need to compete in today’s job market,” Gallucci said. “Veterans are motivated, hard-working and resilient; we know that companies want to hire them. VRAP is reinforcing this, but we’re running out of time.”

Gallucci pointed out that VA still has resources to pay additional trainees, but that statute dictates that payments are no longer authorized beyond March 31. Recently, the White House issued guidance for VA to pay out as much of the benefit as possible to help currently-enrolled veterans finish the semester, but the VFW would prefer to see Congress extend the program to allow new veterans to sign up for classes into next fall.

Through the VFW’s new network of student veteran liaisons across the country, the VFW has heard consistent praise for VRAP, with many student veteran advocates asking what the VFW is doing to help extend the program. However, the VFW has also heard concerns from the same advocates over the strict VRAP guidelines on full-time status and school eligibility that have kept many veterans from enrolling or completing programs.

To the VFW, the approach to extending and improving VRAP is multifaceted. First, the VFW wants to pass Brownley’s legislation, extending the program for six months. Next, the VFW wants to reauthorize the program for an additional two years, allowing another 99,000 veterans to enroll. Finally, the VFW wants to improve access to the program by allowing trainees to drop below full-time student status, and allowing four-year schools with qualifying high demand programs to enroll beneficiaries.

To date VA has approved more than 125,000 veterans to participate in VRAP, but only 72,000 veterans have enrolled in classes. The VFW wants to see every eligible veteran have the opportunity to use VRAP to hone their job skills and find meaningful careers. Check back regularly for updates on the VFW’s efforts to extend this critical benefit program.

(Image: VFW Deputy Legislative Director Ryan Gallucci explains why the VFW wants to extend VRAP during yesterday's press conference on Capitol Hill. Photo by Steven Jensen.)

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

VFW Testifies on Education, Employment and VA Executive Performance

Yesterday afternoon, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity hosted a hearing to discuss legislation pending before the committee related to education, employment, student veteran services and VA disciplinary procedure. VFW Deputy Legislative Director Ryan Gallucci testified before the subcommittee, offering the VFW’s perspective on each pending bill, as well as recommendations to improve the committee’s concepts.

To view a list of witnesses from the hearing, read their prepared remarks and view an archived webcast, click here.

The VFW has consistently advocated for improved student services and employment resources for veterans. However, the VFW has always been frustrated by the lack of quality data on the student veteran experience and inconsistencies in employment resources. This is why the VFW proudly supported efforts from Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Takano, D-Calif., to report on peer-to-peer support for student veterans; Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., to survey student veterans; and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., to conduct a longitudinal study of services delivered by Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service, or VETS.

In his remarks, Gallucci paid close attention to student veteran issues in higher education, once again expressing his frustration with how some have manipulated incomplete Department of Education data to portray a false narrative about student veterans.

“Many draw conclusions [about student veterans] based on bad information,” Gallucci said. “In my office, my colleagues and I joke that by Department of Education standards, none of us is considered a college graduate. We need quality information to demonstrate student veteran success.”

Gallucci went on to explain that the only reliable data on student veteran outcomes in higher education had been released by Student Veterans of America, or SVA, earlier in the week through the SVA Million Records Project, and that SVA’s report, along with a proper survey of student veterans and a valid report on peer outreach on college campuses would allow policy-makers to better understand the student veteran experience.

Gallucci offered recommendations to the subcommittee on the current proposal to commission a pilot program on peer-to-peer student veteran services, explaining that a pilot would only duplicate programs already underway at many college campuses around the country. Gallucci shared the story of Kenneth Wiseman, VFW’s student veteran liaison for Virginia and graduate student peer mentor at Old Dominion University. Wiseman’s home campus of Old Dominion already employs nearly a dozen VA WorkStudy veterans to deliver peer-to-peer support for veterans, and through his work around Virginia, Wiseman is helping other schools similarly boost their peer support services.

In lieu of commissioning a pilot on peer support, Gallucci recommended identifying current peer support programs like the one at Old Dominion on a diverse selection of college campuses and producing a report on their efficacy, and that the VFW looked forward to working with Takano and his staff to make it happen.

Subcommittee Chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, also focused on the committee’s proposal to give the VA secretary broader authority to fire executive-level employees for poor performance. In the wake of several high-profile incidents of negligence in VA medical facilities, the committee was disturbed to learn that those in executive leadership positions were neither disciplined nor removed. The VFW echoed the committee’s concerns over the difficulty in firing executive-level VA employees, but warned against swinging the pendulum too far in favor of political appointees who could use the new rules to hire and fire executives for political purposes. The VFW instead recommended tightening the current disciplinary rules by closing off the current open-ended appeal system that often prevents VA from disciplining executives for poor performance. Gallucci agreed that the recent examples of negligence sent the wrong message to the veterans community and said that the VFW looked forward to working with the committee to ensure executives would be held accountable for poor performance.

The VFW has been one of the leading voices in the veterans’ community on improving transitional, educational and employment resources for veterans. VFW Washington Office staff will continue to work with the subcommittee to finely tune each of the bills up for discussion prior to the subcommittee’s pending markup on April 8. Check back regularly for updates.

(Image: VFW Deputy Legislative Director Ryan Gallucci testifies on pending legislation before the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Photo by Aleks Morosky.)

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