Too many times these days, our veterans are getting caught up in the childish games in Congress. That's unacceptable.
I'm running for Congress in North Carolina's Second District. We're fortunate to be home to over 50,000 active duty soldiers, their families, and thousands of veterans. These folks have been severely impacted by reckless votes in Washington like the government shutdown and sequestration cuts.
Washington has become an embarrassment. It seems as if politicians can find a way to make every issue partisan and polarizing. Protecting and serving our military and veterans shouldn't be.
I've used my voice to sing for years, but it's time to use my voice to speak up for thousands whose voices aren't being heard. So in an attempt to be part of the solution in Washington, here are five simple, practical things that I think Congress could be doing to improve the lives of our nation's heroes, but because they refuse to work together, they simply aren't.
1. Eliminating veteran homelessness
Soldiers shouldn't return home to find themselves on the streets, but that's an all too common reality for many veterans.
On a given night in January 2013, there were 57,849 homeless veterans across the United States. In North Carolina alone there were 1,123 homeless veterans.
In a tough economy, it can be hard enough to find and hold down a job. Transitioning out of the military can be more difficult than transitioning into it. And the psychological effects of war can exacerbate problems as well.
Congress needs to permanently authorize the National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans and fully fund the Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program and the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. These programs sponsor veteran shelters, job training and professional development services, health and substance abuse treatment, and career counseling and job placement services. By partnering with community organizations, these programs require only minimal resources from the federal government and can make a monumental difference in the lives of tens of thousands of veterans a year.
2. Expanding Veterans Treatment Courts
Veterans often face difficulties transitioning into civilian life. Unfortunately, that can sometimes lead them into criminal behavior.
Veterans Treatment Courts focus on rehabilitation when mental health and substance abuse problems prompted criminal activity. These courts are modeled after successful drug courts.
In North Carolina, we opened our first Veterans Treatment Court in Harnett County in 2013. But these courts need to be more accessible to all of our veterans.
Congress needs to move on passing H.R. 2187 - Servicemember Assistance for Lawful Understanding Treatment and Education Act, which was reintroduced in the U.S. House in May 2013 by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA-07). It's time to take action on providing veterans the justice they deserve.
3. Encouraging the hiring of veterans
Encouraging companies to hire veterans and supporting veteran entrepreneurship should be a no-brainer. Our veterans leave the armed forces equipped with leadership and specialized skills and a sense of duty that can't be taught in a classroom.
Yet for the fourth year in a row, post-9/11 veterans are unemployed at higher rates than non-veterans. My brother returned from serving in Iraq a few years ago only to job search for over a year.
Organizations like Hire a Hero do a great job at giving veterans the resources they need to job hunt, but our federal government should do its part.
Congress must make permanent the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, which provides incentives of up to $5,600 for companies hiring veterans. Congress must also make permanent the Wounded Warriors Tax Credit, which can mean $9,600 in tax credits for hiring long-term unemployed veterans with service-connected disabilities. Congress let both bills expire on December 31, 2013 -- just another example of how Congress is doing nothing and how it's hurting people. If Congress would get to work, our veterans would too.
4. Ensuring veterans receive benefits
Congress needs to take action to assure veterans get all the benefits they deserve.
Current laws delay or prohibit many disabled veterans from collecting their VA disability compensation if they also receive retirement pay, even though they fought and worked to earn both benefits. Surviving families of our fallen soldiers are also many times being denied benefits under current law. We also need to eliminate the Widow's Tax so that spouses of our fallen soldiers are getting the compensation they deserve.
Congress should pass H.R. 333 - Disabled Veterans Tax Termination Act and H.R. 32 - Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act to assure veterans and their families get all the benefits they deserve. These bipartisan bills have been stuck in committee since January 2013 -- it's time to take action on making them law.
5. Educating military children
Counties with many federal properties such as military installations collect less property tax, and that leads to far fewer dollars to spend on things like public education.
In recent years, Harnett County, NC, has faced a major problem with overcrowded schools due to an influx in military families moving on to post in the area and the inability to keep pace due to a low tax base from which to draw school funds.
In 1950, the federal government instituted Impact Aid to help offset these lost tax dollars. Impact Aid benefits 21,000 children of military personnel in North Carolina.
But Impact Aid has not been fully funded since 1969, and it took an additional 5 percent cut in 2013 due to sequestration.
Simply increasing funding is not enough -- these students need stronger support systems. And that means more teachers and counselors in these schools to support children impacted by frequent moves and the absence of parents serving overseas.
Congress actually needs to get to work to expand Impact Aid and provide additional support systems to the schools that educate the children of our nation's heroes.
There are countless other things we could and should be doing for our military and veterans. These are just a few places we should start. The men and women of the military, both active duty and veterans, offered their lives to protect our freedoms. They are giving and have given their best. We owe them better. And if representatives of both parties would just work together, Congress could do so much more to support those who sacrificed to support us.
You can learn more about where Clay Aiken stands on military and veterans' issues on his website, www.clayaiken.com