Watch TV these days, look around online, or go to a live sporting event, and it's nearly impossible to miss the growing appreciation of the sacrifices made by America's veterans. Ads routinely depict jubilant family and community homecomings of returning service members.
I watch this cultural shift as a leader of an organization that has worked for decades to ensure that the nation continually makes good on the debt we owe America's veterans. I am now both incredibly optimistic and terribly concerned.
Why? I have no doubt our nation's leaders and citizens all want to do the right thing for our veterans, but the harsh reality is we aren't.
That's because keeping our promises to former service members and their families requires more than goodwill. It requires:
a. the right level of funding for the services provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA);
b. the right budget process; and
c. the right Congressional oversight of how services are delivered to veterans.
And it requires the equal treatment of veterans from all eras of wartime and peacetime service.
Currently, we fall short on all four.
As large as it is at $68.4 billion, the administration's proposed budget for the Department of Veteran Affairs for FY 2015 actually still leaves gaping holes. We need a solid promise of sufficient, timely and predictable funding for Dept of Veteran Affairs in order to meet the needs of a new generation of returning veterans as well as those of previous eras.
It's not enough to fund just minimally adequate construction of new and expanded facilities Our military drawdown in the next three years means 1 million veterans will return home -- bringing the total veterans population to nearly 22 million. Where will the Department of Veteran Affairs serve them? How?
It's also not enough to fund just the parts of the VA budget in advance -- only those that deal with health services -- yet leave other pieces dangling hostage to political gamesmanship and future budget standoffs.
To keep its promises to our veterans, Congress should approve currently pending legislation that would extend advance appropriations to all Veteran Affairs appropriations accounts. Veterans should not have to wonder -- as they did last fall -- whether their benefits payments will be threatened. Medical and prosthetic research must not be delayed or cast aside. Our national cemeteries must not say "call back later" when that moment comes for a veteran and his or her family.
We must also recognize that the changing bureaucratic contracting process for vital health tools like hearing aids, wheelchairs, and artificial limbs, which fall under the category of "prosthetics," are currently creating a new Veteran Affairs backlog that jeopardizes the health and quality of life of too many veterans. They need timely decisions on and access to tools that help them see, hear and be independent. Congressional oversight is needed to prevent new regulations from sidelining veterans unnecessarily for months and forcing them and their families to cope with the stress of unnecessary and avoidable delays.
In addition, it's simply not right to say that veterans of one era should get more care than veterans of another. Yet we now provide comprehensive benefits only to caregivers of veterans with a service-connected injury that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001.
Congress should erase the line it forced Veteran Affairs to draw in the caregivers' sand and should immediately expand eligibility for the Veteran Affairs Caregiver Support Program to veterans of any era, of any age, and without exemption for serious illnesses and diseases. After all, America's veteran population is not just growing. It's growing older.
And isn't living well and longer the point?
It's not good enough that even under current funding, the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot maintain capacity to provide for the unique health-care needs of veterans for whom "living well" no longer comes naturally, the veterans with severe disabilities, such as those who have experienced spinal cord injury or disease, traumatic brain injury, blindness, amputation or mental illness. That promise was spelled out in law in 1996, but it's not being kept. In fact, Veteran Affairs cannot even keep track of how far it is falling short. Congress needs to reinstate reporting requirements for Veteran Affairs specialized services. Veteran Affairs must be compelled to complete annual capacity reports to ensure proper staffing and facilities so it can meet goals for delivering patients quality care.
Yes, there are some good signs out there. Americans salute veterans, employers express interest in hiring them, stigma as a result of physical injury and mental illness is being addressed more openly. Congress and the administration are saying the right things. But they need to act. Our veterans don't have the luxury of waiting. The numbers who need our help are growing, and they need that help. And they need it now.