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Paul Rieckhoff Headshot

Six Years Later: Is Washington finally listening?

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In 2004, when I got home after spending a year patrolling the streets of Baghdad, you know what the top news story was? It wasn't the growing threat of roadside bombs, or the burgeoning problems at Walter Reed. It was Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."

On the 6th anniversary of the war in Iraq, the national tone could not be more different. Admittedly, the media are still covering Jennifer Aniston's relationship woes like it's national news, but in Washington, at least this week, the politicians were listening. Over the past few days, IAVA has met with President Obama in the White House, Speaker Pelosi in the Capitol, and VA Secretary Shinseki at the VA headquarters. It was a wild week.

The folks in Washington aren't just listening - in one area of government at least--they're acting. We saw real progress this week when the Pentagon announced it would phase out the use of "stop-loss." Stop-loss was intended as a Band-Aid solution in times of emergency. But since 2001, it has been used to extend the enlistment contracts of over 160,000 troops. The policy is corrosive to morale and unfair to military families, and after almost eight years, Washington has finally done something about it. The use of stop-loss will cease by 2010, and in the meantime, troops serving after their enlistments are supposed to be over will see an extra $500 in their monthly pay. It's about damn time we paid our troops for their overtime.

With the end of stop-loss, we've finally begun to address some of the burdens bad policy puts on our military families. But as the war enters its seventh year, there's still a ton left to do. As we draw down our forces in Iraq, we must also prepare for the surge of veterans returning home. And there's one simple fix that Congress and the President need to agree on this year: advance funding for the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Advance funding sounds wonky, but it's actually a simple, common sense solution. Right now, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs over 150 hospitals and thousands of clinics nationwide, caring for almost 6 million veterans a year. But if you asked the VA Secretary how much money he'll have to run that whole operation in October, he couldn't tell you. Why? Because the government funding mechanism is broken. Every year, veterans groups like ours have to go to Congress and fight for funding. And when we finally get it, it's usually late. In nineteen of the past twenty-two years, Congress has passed the VA budget late. Think about that. America has been late in paying its wounded for their care for almost two decades. That record is a national embarrassment.

As a result of this broken system, the VA doesn't know how much money it will have three months from now. It is consistently forced to compromise and ration care for veterans. Hospitals and clinics can't hire critical staffing and address equipment needs. The Secretary can't hire thousands of needed psychologists and counselors. Those old VA buildings can't get repaired. Work can't get done all over the country. And veterans are left waiting.

You couldn't operate your household this way. The second largest department in the Federal Government can't either. Advanced funding--funding the VA a year in advance--is the solution.

Advance funding would give VA Secretary Shinseki the tools to better do his job and make the transformation necessary at the VA. It would give the Secretary the resources he needs to address the many critical issues facing new veterans, such as Traumatic Brain Injury and homelessness. And he'd have the flexibility to focus on properly implementing the new GI Bill, arguably the most pressing challenge facing the VA in the next year.

Of course, the best part of this solution is that it comes at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Advanced funding would not cost a single additional dollar. That's not something you are hearing much from Washington nowadays. No wonder we saw President Obama and Senator McCain agree on it during the election last year.

It's a popular, bipartisan, cost-free solution that'll help veterans of all generations, including the hundreds of thousands of troops coming home from Iraq in the next few years. So by the time we commemorate the start of the Iraq war again next year, advance funding should be a reality. There are no acceptable excuses. Six years is already long enough for our veterans to wait.

Crossposted at www.IAVA.org.