"After a mortar sent Andrew Spurlock hurtling off a roof in Iraq, ending his Army career in 2006, the seasoned infantryman set aside bitterness over his back injury and began to chart his life in storybook fashion: a new house, a job as a police officer and more children.
But [...] the job with the Orange County Sheriff's Office fell through after officials there told Mr. Spurlock that he needed to "decompress" after two combat tours. Scrambling, he settled for a job delivering pizzas. Mr. Spurlock's disability claim for his back injury took 18 months to process, a year longer than expected. With little choice, the couple began putting mortgage payments on credit cards. The family debt climbed to $60,000, a chunk of it for medical bills, including for his wife and child. Foreclosure seemed certain." -The New York Times
Imagine struggling to pay your mortgage, keep your job and feed your family, all while serving a year-long deployment thousands of miles away. Every American is feeling the sting of the economic downturn. But veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are being hit especially hard. As the Senate begins to debate the economic stimulus package this week, our elected leaders must ensure that any plan to stimulate the economy fully supports the newest generation of veterans and their families.
You would think this would be a no-brainer, but after last week, I'm not optimistic. I still cannot believe that politicians in the House decided to cut funding to refurbish the National Mall, home of the memorials to honor our veterans and war dead of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. (Not to mention the Jefferson Memorial, which is so neglected it's currently sinking into the Tidal Basin.) Showing proper respect to our nation's heroes must be a controversial subject these days, because all of that funding was cut.
I'm hoping the Senate shows more reverence to our troops and veterans. The plan they have put forward is a good start: there are significant funding increases for veterans' hospitals, national cemeteries, and new childcare centers at military installations. The Senate version also includes three times the overall veterans' funding passed by the House.
But it still leaves the job unfinished. Even with the additional funding, the current plan falls short of what's required to cover the $5 billion backlog in needed repairs to VA facilities. The Senate must provide enough funds to cover the entire backlog, so that veterans in Kansas will have access to the same quality facilities as those in California. This money would put Americans back to work and would support our nation's bravest men and women.
$5 billion might seem like a lot of money. But it would represent less than one-half of one percent of the total stimulus package. And according to the Committee on Wartime Contracting, contractors we hired to rebuild Iraq wasted at least that much money (the total amount spent is much higher--in the hundreds of billions). Billions of dollars were totally lost to mismanagement and fraud, with nothing to show for it. So while Congress has spent years willing to spend, accountability-free, on Iraq's infrastructure, they are pinching pennies when it comes to repairing veterans' hospitals and war memorials. Shameful.
Of course, the comparison only goes so far, because rebuilding veterans' hospitals is actually a sound use of taxpayer dollars. Investing resources in our nation's veterans is a smart and patriotic way to improve the American economy. There is no better example than the GI Bill, which added seven dollars to the national economy for every dollar spent. This is the type of return that makes CNBC's Jim Cramer scream "Booyah!" Veterans' health care is just as good of a buy as the GI Bill: according to study after study, VA care is both better and cheaper than any health care system in the country.
And investment in veterans can take many forms. At IAVA, we've done the heavy thinking, and come up with a wide range of strong ideas for the Senate to add to their version of the bill. This includes retroactive payments to help cover veterans' student loans, a plan to triple the number of outreach coordinators employed at VA facilities, and new funding for programs that provide job training for homeless women veterans and homeless veterans with children. For complete details on veterans' funding in the economic stimulus package, along with our recommendations for improvements, click here.
Next week, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from around the country will converge on Washington to take part in IAVA's annual Storm the Hill advocacy week. We will meet with dozens of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to ensure that new veterans play a critical role in the rebuilding of America's economy. Think of it as a whole new kind of surge. We will make certain that Congress remembers the service of veterans from all generations, and that our nation's war memorials are not just some random patch of lawn.
Crossposted at IAVA.org.