The Oregon Ducks came up short against Auburn this week, but December's lame duck delivered for vets. You may have missed it while buried in a blizzard or trapped in a holiday food coma, but Congress came through big-time for vets during the lame duck session.
In a surprising turn of events, when most people left the administration and Democratic leadership for dead, Washington showed some signs of life and made huge progress. As the media focused on issues like tax cuts, nuclear stockpiles and food safety, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were really the big winners. As the clock was ticking on the 111th Congress, IAVA ratcheted the up pressure in DC to get some critical legislation passed.
Here's how new vets came up big in the lame duck:
New GI Bill 2.0
In 2008, the historic New GI Bill legislation was signed into law. Since then, IAVA has been fighting for key improvements to close loopholes and expand coverage to thousands of additional veterans. These critical upgrades will impact 400,000 new vets within the first year by expanding benefits for full-time National Guardsmen, students-veterans at private and graduate schools, distance learners and students at vocational schools.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT)
IAVA was the only major veterans service organization (VSO) that came out in support of DADT repeal. IAVA fought to end this policy, and by working with bipartisan allies in Congress, we made it happen. Now, every single member of our military can serve with openness and honesty and be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. IAVA was proud to join the President as he signed the historic legislation just before Christmas.
USERRA protections extended
Over a decade ago, Congress extended veterans preference to hiring for government jobs - including USERRA job protections for employees who had to fulfill military duties. However, amazingly, they exempted all legislative branch jobs from this law. During the lame duck, Congress passed a joint resolution to extend USERRA protections to jobs on Capitol Hill. While some Congressional positions will remain exempt, this is a huge step in the right direction for all vets working in the federal government.
2011 Defense Bill (NDAA)
Every year, the NDAA includes provisions that are important for troops and vets, but this year's included a huge chunk of IAVA's Legislative Agenda. However, the original version of the 2011 NDAA included the repeal of DADT, so it failed to get the votes necessary to get through the Senate. The prospect of being the first Congress in 48 years to not pass the Defense Bill, coupled with pressure from IAVA, drove them to agree upon a bill stripped of all controversial provisions, which was promptly passed. Included in the 2011 NDAA are clauses that increase the number of Mental Health Care Providers in the military, require the military to pre-screen deploying service members in order to have a comparison for post-deployment Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) screenings and improve prevention and response for Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
Fraud at Arlington
After outrageous fraud and mismanagement was discovered at Arlington National Cemetery, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution that requires the Army to massively overhaul procedures in regards to mismarked graves. Congress is now requiring Arlington to audit the records of all 300,000 graves and there will be an assessment of the feasibility of transferring the administration of Arlington from the Army to the VA, which manages all 132 other national cemeteries. Thankfully, now families can take comfort in the fact that their loved ones will be respectfully and rightfully buried after serving their country.
James Zadroga 9/11 First Responders Health and Compensation Act of 2010
The 9/11 First Responders bill provides ongoing health care and other benefits for workers exposed to toxins in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks. As a first responder myself, this bill is especially important to me and the brave men and women I served next to at Ground Zero. Since many first responders then went on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, this bill is very important for new veterans.
The outgoing 111th Congress set the bar high for the newly sworn-in 112th. But with the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan vets still at record highs and the number of military suicides at epidemic levels, a huge amount of work still needs to be done. If the bipartisan cooperation that began in December during the lame duck continues, there's hope we can make even more progress for the surge of hundreds of thousands of new veterans coming home in the months ahead.
And if we can get that, there will be much to celebrate when ringing in 2012.
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