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Joseph Graziano Headshot

The Mystifying Misperception

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VETERANS REACT DEBATE
AP

Two months after September 11, 2001 my father, the severely injured, sole survivor of Engine 22 Ladder 13, sought help in securing disability benefits from the New York City Fire Commissioner's Office. The Office responded that the government of New York believed he was dead and refused to help him. A deserving public servant, my father's struggle to obtain benefits from the state following 9/11 is not unlike that of the millions of veterans who struggle to secure disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs after they return home from duty. My father's experience sensitized me to this enduring injustice, and subsequently, I have spent the last decade committed to serving those who have served.

Traditionally, veterans have been dependable supporters of the Republican Party. Although veterans are no longer a homogenous voting group, this continues to ring true. According to recent polling by Politico, Governor Romney has a commanding 20 point lead over President Obama in the veteran vote. This unhealthy pairing can be explained by the existence of a persistent and complexing misperception that hawkish republicans, those most likely to send our soldiers off to war, are the same people most likely to stand beside and serve our veterans when they return home. Nothing is further from the truth.

Let me first be very clear: neither party has done enough to fulfill all of the promises made to our soldiers and their families. Although the post-World War II GI Bill of Rights was a transformative milestone in the lives of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen, American history is deeply embedded with examples of our failures to adequately serve our most vulnerable veterans. We are a forward-looking nation prone to forget its past, especially when that past is burdensome. Since the American Revolution, we have consistently failed to adequately care for our disabled veterans.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised our historical ineptitudes to a crisis level. The prevalence of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder have left thousands of returning soldiers incapable of managing their own care. Further, dramatic improvements in emergency medicine have enabled wounded soldiers to survive what were once deadly wounds. We also remain a nation at war, the longest war in U.S. history. The combination of the above factors has inflicted an unprecedented strain on the resources available to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Unfortunately, the plight of the American veteran is not a new ticket item in electoral politics. Our political leaders have been called to step up and honor the promises made to our veterans for over ten years now. And the notion that the American veteran deserves better can -- and by now should -- be a bipartisan issue around which both sides of the aisle rally to action.

However, the Democratic and Republican parties have answered this call to duty with shockingly different levels of concern. One needs only examine the past two presidential administrations to highlight the stark differences.

During President George W. Bush's administration, his Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits, Daniel Cooper, acknowledged that the administration faced a backlog of over 400,000 disability claims, the majority from veterans of previous wars. Yet, the administration never offered a solution to reduce the number of claims, or the two-to-four year lag time it took to have a claim adjudicated by the VA. Instead, veterans were left wondering if the Bush administration was just waiting for them to die.

Also during the Bush years, newspaper stories, most notably The Washington Post's series on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, catalogued the appalling manner in which our nation's most vulnerable veterans were being discarded to the margins of society. Although Walter Reed was part of the Department of Defense, most of the patients there eventually became part of the VA. These veterans, veterans like Patrick Feges, a young man severely injured in Iraq who waited more than seventeen months for this first disability check, found themselves forced into homelessness. On any given night during the Bush administration there were 300,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. Just one would have been too many. And even for those veterans who were granted disability benefits, the compensation was minimal. A veteran with a disability rating of 100 (meaning that he or she cannot work because of service related injuries) only received $2,400 a month. Yet no solutions were offered, only excuses.

Even after the former Commerce Department official under President Clinton, Linda Bilmes, predicted that 700,000 veterans from the global war on terror would eventually enter the VA, the Bush administration continued to allow budgetary demands to far outpace VA funding. For instance, in 2006 Congress had to pass an emergency $2.7 billion infusion for veterans' health programs because the Bush budget had severely underestimated the number of veterans needing care. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration still planned consecutive cutbacks on the VA budget in 2009 and 2010, even as the number of veterans entering the VA system was being estimated to increase by more than 5 percent. To compound these shortcomings, under President Bush the VA itself was structured to deny rather than facilitate compensation. As Craig Kabatchnick, a former senior appellate attorney for the VA's Office of General Counsel, admitted: "Our job was to deny claims."

In stark contrast, the Obama administration has brought a passionate problem-solving approach to this historically intractable issue. Since General Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself, was confirmed as VA Secretary, he has sought to overhaul what was an adversarial agency and shape it into a veteran advocacy organization. Shinseki's call to action implores VA claims adjudicators to adhere to their duty to assist veterans with their claims and to employ "the benefit of the doubt" as the legal standard of proof. Congress responded to Shinseki's leadership by providing a 2010 budget of 112.3 billion, an increase of 15 billion from the year before. This constituted the largest increase in VA budget in 30 years. It immediately enabled 266,000 veterans who had lost their VA benefits under the Bush administration to re-enroll.

General Shinseki recently praised Obama's commitment to our veterans in his speech at the Democratic National Convention: "Since President Obama took office, nearly 800,000 veterans gained access to VA healthcare. There's been a historic expansion of treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. President Obama has expanded job training to prepare vets for the jobs of the future. And we're on track to end veterans' homelessness by 2015. No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has done more for veterans."

Most important to the health of our veterans, in contrast to their predecessors, Obama and Shinseki have accepted accountability for the lack of transparency and coordination between the VA and the Department of Defense that contributed to tragically long delays between a veteran submitting a claim and it being adjudicated by the VA. Obama's pilot program, which creates a joint electronic medical records system to enable a soldier's information to be shared between the VA and the DoD has begun to ease the transition to veteran status and eliminate senseless bureaucracy.

President Obama and his administration have taken and continue to take unparalleled steps to address the plight of veterans. Obama truly understands that ensuring that we serve those who have served will define the character, conviction, and conscience of our country.

Even long-time Republicans have noticed Obama's dedication to veterans. Larry Pressler, a Vietnam veteran with 22 years of service as a Republican member of the Senate and the House of Representatives, recently endorsed President Obama and his commitment to our troops in The Huffington Post.

It is tempting, in light of the above, to believe that President Obama is just much more committed to the concerns of our veterans than President Bush was and have that be the end of the story. But the stark differences between the Democratic and Republican parties' commitment to our veterans extend far beyond the last two presidential administrations. Instead, these differences were most recently on display during last month's Senate vote on the Veterans Job Corps Act of 2012.

This Act should not have been a controversial issue that divided our Senate along party lines. The Veterans Job Corps Act proposed spending $1 billion over 5 years to help put veterans back to work by offering our veterans jobs servicing federal lands and bridges, while helping other veterans secure positions as police officers and fire fighters. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans placed their hatred of Obama in front of their duty to serve our veterans. The bill fell two votes short of passing when 40 Republicans voted to kill the bill, claiming that it was too expensive.

In response to the Republicans' alleged concerns over the cost of the veteran job plan, Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla. chief sponsor of the bill, chastised Republicans, stating "Veterans don't care to hear about why we cannot support them ... Veterans don't care about a budget point of order."

The Republican Party's aversion to honoring the past commitments we made to our soldiers when we sent them to war extends to the party's current leader. Mitt Romney has offered no call to action or "five point plan" to honor the promises we have made to our returning soldiers. And Romney failed to even mention our soldiers in his address at the Republican National Convention.

Instead, it is President Obama who continues to bring attention to the struggles of our veterans and who offers solutions, such as improving the post 9/11 GI Bill and creating a Veterans Jobs Corp, both of which will aid our veterans in reintegrating into society.

Most recent, during the third presidential debate, it was President Obama who twice highlighted our duty to serve those who have served. "What I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war it's time to do some nation building here at home," Obama said. "And what we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans -- rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, making sure that our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, making sure that the certifications that they need for good jobs of the future are in place. "You know, I was having lunch with a veteran in Minnesota who had been a medic dealing with the most extreme circumstances," Obama continued. "When he came home and he wanted to become a nurse, he had to start from scratch. And what we've said is let's change those certifications. The first lady has done great work with an organization called Joining Forces putting our veterans back to work. And as a consequence, veterans' unemployment is actually now lower than general population. It was higher when I came into office."

Romney's response to President Obama was emblematic of the entire Republican Party's apathy towards our veterans' plight. He said nothing, failing to even mention our veterans once during an entire debate focused on the foreign policy our soldiers in large part are responsible for implementing across the globe.

I grew up in a house that honored those who live lives of service, heroic service, with a total commitment to the public good. Their ideals are mine. I also want to live a life of public service, and I want to protect and secure justice for those who offer a service far greater than any I might give. And the greatest service I can currently offer our veterans right now is to vote Democrat on November 6th.

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