I am Ohio Secretary of State and I'm running for the U.S. Senate.
Last week Ohioans and people all across our great nation celebrated Veterans Day. As has become the norm and expected in American politics, professional politicians from Bangor to San Diego rightly heralded the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who proudly wear our nation's uniform as they selflessly protect our country.
But what do they do after Veterans Day has come and gone? That's when the real work begins. Rather than simply honor our veterans once a year, we need to take the walk of all the great talk by helping to improve their lives on a daily basis. Veterans Day should be more than a celebration of the heroism and dedication of the brave women and men who have fought for our freedom; it should also be a sharp reminder that we need to confront the ongoing struggles facing veterans and their families.
Here are four simple measures that Congress should move quickly so they are considered in the decisions about what we do about ramping up or down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not just for the returning vets, but for their loved ones who want them back in their lives in all ways:
First, we need an employment program that puts our veterans to work. Unemployment among veterans is markedly higher than among the public as a whole. That's why Congress needs to create a program rooted in two basic concepts: jobs for veterans and tax cuts for businesses that employ veterans.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (passed by Congress earlier this year) expanded the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to include new incentives for businesses to hire returning veterans. In return for hiring a veteran, businesses can write off 40 percent of the first $6,000 of each newly-hired veteran's pay. That's a good start, but not nearly enough. Already the tax credit is underutilized. The U.S. Congress should allow businesses to write off $10,000 of the first $20,000 of each newly-hired veteran's salary. That way, businesses have a real financial incentive to put veterans to work.
Second, Congress increased spending on veterans' education, but did little to provide for more money for rehabilitation, including more counseling and psychiatric help for many veterans still coping with the inevitable trauma of war. Already, mental health services are not fully in parity with most types of health care coverage, even for the civilian population. Let's make the medical services we provide to our vets an example for what the rest of us should be able to expect. The rate of post traumatic stress disorder is high for returning veterans--more so than for the general population. It is imperative to vets and their families that we assist them with the rehabilitation necessary for returning veterans to reintegrate themselves fully in our society.
Third, the U.S. should create a tax check-off fund to provide assistance to homeless veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 130,000 veterans are homeless. With more and more veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the economic problems in our country keeping them out of the job market, veterans are increasingly likely to end up sliding into poverty and homelessness. When I served as a state trial court judge, I often encountered homeless, addicted or poverty stricken veterans of the Viet Nam War before me for felony indictments. This should never be a likely or given outcome for serving our country.
According to a study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 70,000 veterans recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan spend more than half their income on housing, even if they do not have a job. The hope of a stable environment for these veterans is at great risk.
Legislation is needed that would allow taxpayers the opportunity to choose to provide $3 of their taxes for homeless veterans by creating a new check-off box on federal tax returns, similar to the Presidential Election Campaign fund. So many Ohioans have participated in the Ohio Secretary of State's "Vote in Honor of a Veteran" program to honor their loved ones who are veterans. This is yet another to way to honor them--and to help them.
And finally, too many veterans confront discrimination in their work place, often having to choose between the job they depend on or the treatment that they need. My friend and long-time political mentor, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), recently introduced the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act. The act would ensure that the nation's wounded veterans are protected from workplace discrimination if they miss work to receive treatment for a service-connected illness, injury, or disability. Congress should pass this important legislation immediately, so our veterans no longer have to live under the sword of Damacles to get treatment.
Our country's history is made possible because of brave and dedicated veterans. We must join together in commending their heroism and honoring their sacrifice - not just on November 11, but each and every day of the year by passing these four pieces of legislation and walk the talk we use to honor them.
Jennifer Brunner, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, was elected twice as a judge, and won an open seat for Ohio Secretary of State with a 15-point lead over 3 other candidates. As Secretary of State, she was last year awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for fighting for needed election reforms related to voting machine reliability and security. The Profile in Courage Award is considered the nation's most prestigious honor for elected public servants.
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