Congratulations to President-elect Obama. Both he and Senator McCain are outstanding patriots, and hey, each ran a tough campaign. Now that the race is finally over, it's time to bring America together, and get to work. And there is no shortage of challenges ahead. As one vet at IAVA put it, "The new guy is going to be busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
The new guy is definitely going to need the right people around him. One of the most important decisions the President will make regarding veterans is his choice of VA Secretary. President-elect Obama has the option of keeping Secretary Peake, who is new to the job and has already shown himself to be considerably more adept than his predecessor. Another shake-up could possibly slow things down, however.
But President-elect Obama could also pick someone new for the post. Someone transformative. At this point in a blog, you usually see a lot of names get tossed about who'd be likely to get the job. Every pundit likes to imagine their own ideal Cabinet, and they rarely guess right.
So instead of playing guessing games, I'm calling on the new President to convene a Presidential Summit of Veteran Leaders. The key here is having input from the experts: veterans. As the President considers nominations for the appointed positions within the VA, including the VA Secretary, he should bring together leading veterans' organizations, and especially veterans of the current wars, to make sure he's getting the "ground truth" on what we need. Veterans have been consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to everything from armor shortages to TBI, and the new President needs to hear from us. Whoever is chosen should have a proven track record of innovation and reform, and should be ready to address the urgent needs of new veterans.
But a smiling picture of the Secretary on the wall of the VA building isn't going to make a difference alone. Here are the three critical policies veterans need to see from the new President in his first 100 days:
1. Advance-Fund VA Health Care
For the past two years, Congress has been a friend of veterans when it comes to funding their health care. In fact, we've seen the largest budget increases for veterans' health care in 77 years. But year after year, Congress dawdles and the VA budget is passed late, forcing hundreds of veterans' hospitals and clinics to ration care. The President can fix this in one simple step. President Obama should present to Congress an advance-funded VA budget. It won't cost any extra money, it'll just let veterans' hospitals budget knowing how much money they are going to have next year.
2. Implement GI Bill Transferability
This year, IAVA spearheaded the effort to pass a new GI Bill that will make college affordable to veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was landmark legislation, and it's no exaggeration to say that it will dramatically change the lives of new veterans, just as it did for veterans of World War II.
The new GI Bill had overwhelming bipartisan support, but as the bill got close to passage, you may remember a big kerfuffle about retention and "transferability." Transferability is a provision that would allow career-military troops to pass their GI Bill benefits to their spouse or children. Not a bad idea at all, but the DOD already had the power to make benefits transferable if they wanted to, so it wasn't necessary to legislate. Nonetheless, it was added to the GI Bill towards the very end of the process of passing the GI Bill.
But in the four months since the GI Bill passed, they haven't bother to issue the regulations necessary to implement transferability. Military families across the country were promised a new benefit. Now they've been left waiting. President Obama must direct the Secretary of Defense to issue the appropriate guidelines, so that GI Bill transferability can be successfully implemented by Fall 2009.
3. Issue a National Call for Mental Health Experts--and back it up with incentives
No one comes home from war unchanged, and hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are struggling with invisible injuries, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression. This crisis is made worse by the dramatic shortages of mental health professionals in the military and at the VA. Even the Pentagon's own Task Force on Mental Health has called the military's supply of mental health professionals "woefully inadequate."
America's military healthcare system needs innovative strategies to recruit and retain more mental health professionals to combat the high rates of PTSD and major depression among returning troops. President Obama must issue a national call, urging mental health professionals nationwide to make their services more available to military members and their families. It's a time of war, and it's time more Americans were asked to contribute and support out troops.
But psychologists and psychiatrists in the military system make far less money than would with a civilian salary. The President should also direct the Secretary of Defense to increase the incentive pay and retention bonuses for mental health professionals immediately. This will save lives, and save the tax-payers mountains of money in the long run.
President Obama is going to be held to a very high standard by the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll be watching, and holding everyone in Washington accountable.
The pundits will spend the next few days and weeks rehashing the election results. But the American people know we don't have any time to waste. With more troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan every day, the President better hit the ground running. So let's get cracking.
Follow Paul Rieckhoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PaulRieckhoff