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Witness Testimony of Christina M. Roof, National Acting Legislative Director, American Veterans (AMVETS)

Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of AMVETS, I would like to extend our gratitude for being given the opportunity to share with you our views and recommendations regarding H.R. 811, H.R. 1407, H.R. 1441, H.R. 1484, H.R. 1627, H.R. 1647 and H. Con Res. 12.

AMVETS feels privileged in having been a leader, since 1944, in helping to preserve the freedoms secured by America’s Armed Forces.  Today our organization prides itself on the continuation of this tradition, as well as our undaunted dedication to ensuring that every past and present member of the Armed Forces receives all of their due entitlements.  These individuals, who have devoted their entire lives to upholding our values and freedoms, deserve nothing less.

Given the fact this testimony will be addressing several pieces of legislation, I shall be addressing each piece of legislation separately, as to make AMVETS testimony clear and concise on the individual subject matters of the bills.

AMVETS supports H.R. 811, the ‘‘Providing Military Honors for our Nation’s Heroes Act’’. With the growing demand for Military Honors at burials today and the lack military personnel or volunteers with the financial means to perform them, many of our nation’s fallen heroes are going without proper honors at their funerals. AMVETS finds this poignant reality unacceptable and avoidable.  Even with the low number of volunteers capable of performing these earned burial honors, many more could be preformed if there were resources available to these selfless organizations who travel the country to ensure every veteran and solider has a proper funeral. Moreover, if reimbursements were made available more organizations and individual volunteers could start to offer their services of providing military honors as well. Finally, AMVETS is quite clear on the state of our nation’s budget, however while we fully support fiscal responsibility we do not believe that any man or woman who has served this great nation should be denied a proper burial in an efforts to balance the budget. AMVETS again lends their strong support to H.R. 811.

AMVETS strongly supports H.R. 1407, the ‘‘Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011’’. H.R. 1407 or “COLA” is critical in ensuring the areas of need regarding today’s cost of living are adjusted annually. Wartime Disability Compensation, the Clothing Allowance for severely disabled veterans, Dependency and Indemnity Compensation to Surviving Spouse and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation to Children monetary values must be increased every year to sustain veterans, dependents and survivor’s current quality of life. AMVETS urges the swift passage of H.R. 1407 and offers are unwavering support.

AMVETS supports H.R.  1441, to amend Title 38, United States Code, to codify the prohibition against the reservation of gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery, and for other purposes.

Under title 32 U.S.C., Chapter V, Section 553, Subsection 553.18 (a), the present policy of the Department of the Army, only one gravesite is authorized for the burial of a service member and eligible family members. Furthermore, 5553.18(b) states that gravesites may not be reserved. However, it has been brought to attention of AMVETS that “de facto reservations” of plots were still being made in direct violation to the Army’s policy of prohibition of reservations established in 1962. According to Kathryn Condon, the  executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, as of March 2011 there were 3,500 reservations on file, although it is unclear how many of those 3,500 are valid. AMVETS finds this to be unacceptable and disgraceful, given the importance of what Arlington National Cemetery is tasked with. Moreover, while AMVETS completely understands the esteem and honor of being interned at Arlington National Cemetery, we find it objectionable for any person to go against the Army’s 1962 regulation prohibiting of burial site reservations and to reserve a site that just might be needed for someone who perishes in combat tomorrow. Furthermore, AMVETS believes H.R. 1441 stands to codify the Army’s regulation and also stands to provide accountability and transparency to the process. One’s status in life should not determine their eligibility of internment over anyone else’s. Once again, AMVETS supports H.R. 1441 and further urges congress to have the strictest of oversight in the implementation of the electronic tracking system at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the reservation review process, currently taking place at Arlington National Cemetery.

AMVETS supports H.R. 1484, the ‘‘Veterans Appeals Improvement Act of 2011’’. AMVETS believes H.R. 1484 stands to expedite the claims process, especially in light of the recent changes to laws regarding mental health, Agent Orange and several other areas. AMVETS further believes that through the amending of Title 38, Section 7104 the claims process will be sped up through the avoidance of duplication of efforts and unnecessary paper shuffling. Moreover, AMVETS believes that an unpaid committee tasked with identifying the weaknesses and duplications within the Veterans Benefit Administration’s claim process only stands to assist VBA in developing accurate and expedited claims processing practices, as well as identifying the causes that have led VBA to be stuck in a never ending cycle of backlogs and improperly adjudicated claims. While AMVETS applauds VA in their recent efforts to electronically streamline the claims process, unfortunately little improvement has been made and the backlog continues to grow. AMVETS believes that if the proposed ‘‘Veterans Judicial Review Commission,’’ is held accountable to meeting all standards, guidelines and deadlines as outlined in H.R. 1484, VBA stands to gain valuable information that could lead to great improvements to the entire VA claims process. The unpaid commission will be able to focus strictly on the overall process, thus being able to identify strengths and weaknesses throughout the entire VBA claims system. AMVETS strongly believes to effectively, efficiently and correctly  run any program there must be regular internal and external audits to identify the aforesaid. Therefore, AMVETS lends our support to H.R. 1484.

AMVETS strongly supports H.R. 1627, to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for certain requirements for the placement of monuments in Arlington National Cemetery, and for other purposes. AMVETS believes the proposed language in H. R. 1627 will provide necessary clarity, as well as uniformed defined requisites for the placement of acceptable monuments in Arlington National Cemetery. Furthermore, AMVETS believes that mandating monuments only be erected in areas not suitable for internment will provide the opportunity for more of our nation’s fallen heroes and qualifying veterans to be laid to rest in these sacred grounds.

AMVETS cannot support H.R. 1647, the ‘‘Veterans’ Choice in Filing Act of 2011’’, in its current form. While AMVETS is happy to see new ideas and “out of the box” thinking, we still have concerns on the language in H.R. 1647. So at this time, AMVETS cannot support H.R. 1647, however we are willing to work with the committee on H.R. 1647 to see if any language could be changed, so that it addresses AMVETS current concerns.

AMVETS supports H. CON. RES. 12, Expressing the sense of Congress that an appropriate site on Chaplains Hill in Arlington National Cemetery should be provided for a memorial marker to honor the memory of the Jewish chaplains who died while on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States. Currently there are three monuments at Arlington National Cemetery  for chaplains. One for those killed in World War I and one each for Roman Catholic and Protestant chaplains who died in 20th-century conflicts, including Korea and Vietnam. The three sit side-by-side in an area known as “Chaplains Hill.” The 13 Jewish Chaplains died between 1943 and 1974, though not all were killed in overseas combat, they still served this country. Give the facts that memorial meets the guidelines for erecting a monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the proper congressional steps are being followed and that it will be privately funded, AMVETS lends our support to H. CON. RES. 12.

Chairman Runyan and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, AMVETS would again like to thank you for inviting us to share with you our opinions and recommendations on these very important pieces of legislation. This concludes my testimony and I stand ready to answer any questions you may have for me.