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Witness Testimony of Major General David Bockel, USA (Ret.), Executive Director, Reserve Officers Association of the United States, and also on behalf of Reserve Enlisted Association of the United States

INTRODUCTION

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) and the Reserve Enlisted Association (REA) would like to thank the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify. ROA and REA applaud the ongoing efforts by Congress to address issues facing veterans and servicemembers such as educational programmatic hurdles, problems within the home loan programs, SCRA and more.

Though contingency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to drawdown currently there are still high levels of mobilizations and deployments, and many of these outstanding citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen have put their civilian careers on hold while they serve their country in harm’s way.  As we have learned, they share the same risks and their counterparts in the Active Components on the battlefield.  Recently we passed the 800,000th mark for the number of Reserve and Guard servicemembers who have been activated since post-9/11. More than 275,000 have been mobilized two or more times. The United States is creating a new generation of combat veterans that come from its Reserve Components (RC).  It is important, therefore, that we don’t squander this valuable resource of experience, nor ignore the benefits that they are entitled to because of their selfless service to their country

ROA and REA would like to thank the committee and staff for making improvements to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, enhancing benefits for caregivers, and much more.

Amendments to GI Bill

ROA and REA support the passages of H.R. 2274 and H.R. 2301, which would provide better oversight and streamlining of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Currently, many flaws in implementation of the GI Bill exist due to a lack of oversight of the program.  Many veterans are left to fall through the cracks of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) system, waiting months to receive benefits that they have earned and deserved.

Greater oversight authority of the VA and of the implementation of the GI Bill is seriously needed.  HR.2274, introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), would require both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the VA to submit an annual report about the efficacy and operation of the GI Bill during the previous fiscal year.  These reports would assist in singling out the biggest problems in implementing the GI Bill and would increase accountability for those responsible for implementing the bill.

H.R. 2301, introduced by Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), and titled the “Streamlining Education Claims Processing Act of 2011,” would establish a more concise system of payment for educational benefits from the VA under the GI Bill.  The act states that, for charges incurred from educational institutions by individuals eligible for GI Bill educational benefits, the VA must send payments within 30 days of receipt of the charges.

Currently, funds promised to students eligible for GI Bill benefits by the VA often arrive late, go missing, or are otherwise inadequate.  Streamlining the payments of GI Bill benefits to veterans would help create more accountability in the VA and would ensure that veterans are able to take full advantage of the benefits to which they are entitled.

ROA & REA urge Congress to implement these measures in order to ensure that veterans are adequately compensated for the service they have provided our country.

Disabled Veterans’ Surviving Spouses Home Loans Act

ROA and REA urge Congress to pass H.R. 120, introduced by Rep Virginia Foxx (R-NC), and named “Disabled Veterans’ Surviving Spouses Home Loans Act.”  This Act would provide certain surviving spouses of veterans with eligibility to both housing loans and monthly dependency and indemnity compensation from the VA.

Currently, spouses of veterans whose deaths were not service-related, but who had permanent and total service-related disabilities for at least ten years immediately prior to their death, are eligible to receive monthly dependency and indemnity compensation payments from the VA, but are not eligible for the VA’s Home Loan Guarantee.

Spouses of deceased veterans must cope with the loss of the veterans while also getting their finances back in order and adapting to life without a partner.  These spouses, by supporting disabled or coping with the loss of a spouse who was a veteran, have made sacrifices for the United States and should be compensated for their losses.  Thus, ROA and REA firmly believe that spouses of deceased veterans should be able to receive both dependency and indemnity payments and eligibility for the VA’s Home Loan Guarantee.

Please consider H.R. 120, which would provide veterans’ surviving spouses with the benefits they need in order to move on after the death of their spouses.

Small Business

Reserve Component small business owners are particularly challenged by deployments. About 22 percent of self employed Reservists find that their activations impact their personal businesses, causing severe problems. Many have to sell out partnerships, or close down the business. And many of these Reserve Component members are employers of others, therefore many non-military lose their jobs when the business owner is deployed.

ROA and REA support initiatives to provide small business owners with protections for their businesses to be sustained while on deployment.

ROA and REA appreciate the House passing the HR.1657, which was passed in May. This bill amended title 38, United States Code, to revise the enforcement penalties for misrepresentation of a business concern owned and controlled by veterans or as a small business concern owned or controlled by service disabled veterans.

ROA encourages Congress to look at enacting Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protections for employers who require regularly scheduled mandatory continuing education and licensing/certification and to make necessary changes to USERRA to strengthen employment and reemployment protections.

Once again, ROA asks for Congress’ support with the HR.240, which promotes jobs for Veterans through the use of sole source contracts by Department of Veterans Affairs for purposes of meeting the contracting goals and preferences of the Department of Veterans Affairs for small business concerns owned and controlled by Veterans.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

Protecting Veterans’ Homes Act

Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), members of the Armed Forces are granted nine months of protection from non-judicial mortgage foreclosure after returning home from Active Duty.  This temporary moratorium on civil action allows soldiers to return home and re-adjust to civilian life while at the same time pooling their funds to repay debts such as mortgages.

Returning veterans often face new challenges upon their arrival home, such as dealing with injury or having to find a new civilian job.  For troops facing these adversities, getting their finances together to avoid foreclosure, sale, or seizure of their houses can seem almost impossible.

Currently, such protections in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act are set to expire at the end of 2012. 

ROA and REA strongly support the passage of HR.1911, titled “Protecting Veterans’ Homes Act,” introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), which would permanently extend protections against foreclosure for servicemembers and would extend this grace period from nine months to twelve months.

Ensuring a Response for Servicemembers Act

Under the SCRA, since 1917, a person entering active duty has been permitted to terminate a lease on premises. In 2003, Congress broadened this provision to enable the person entering active duty to terminate a vehicle lease. In 2008, Congress enacted a new provision to permit a service member to terminate a cell phone contract under certain circumstances.

ROA and REA appreciate Congress’ work on these issues, however, there are many other kinds of leases and contracts that the person entering active duty may need to terminate.

ROA and REA request support of HR.2329, introduced by Rep. Bill Johnson (R, Ohio), which would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide for certain requirements for financial institutions that are creditors for obligations and liabilities covered by that Act.

ROA and REA further recommend amending the SCRA to broaden the types of leases and contracts which the person entering active duty can terminate without penalty.  For example, a reservist who has his own small private business and who leases his equipment is being deployed for a year and has no need for the equipment since he must shut down his business. However, his lease on the equipment is not up for another few years and the lesser won’t let him out of the contract early and insists that the reservist still pays for the equipment. Congress needs to amend the SCRA to include leases and contracts of this nature, in addition to leases of premises, vehicles and cell phones.

In addition ROA and REA propose further amending the SCRA to forbid exorbitant overdraft fees and late fees for deployed servicemembers. There have been instances where deployed servicemembers have been charged hundreds or thousands of dollars in overdraft fees or late fees for a low dollar overdraft on a checking account or a late payment on a credit card. Such exorbitant fees should not be allowed to happen.

  • Congress needs to amend the SCRA to clarify that the person returning from the military service has the right to reinstate income-replacement insurance and other forms of insurance, as well as health insurance narrowly defined.
  • Improve SCRA to protect deployed members from creditors that willfully violate SCRA.
  • Continue to enact tax credits for health care and differential pay expenses for deployed Reserve Component employees.

Amending SCRA for Surviving Spouses

In order to best support servicemembers it is essential to also support the family. ROA is thankful for the Department of Defense’s (DoD), the administration’s and Congressional acknowledgment that the military spouse is part of DoD’s family.

ROA and REA encourage Congress to support HR.1263, which would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide surviving spouses with certain protections relating to mortgages and mortgage foreclosures.

This bill would amend section 303 by adding this subsection:

  • Protection for surviving spouses- with respect to a service member who has died while in military service and whose death is service-connected, this section shall apply to the surviving spouse of the service member if such spouse is the successor in interest to property covered under subsection (a).

Expand eligibility of surviving spouses to receive Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) - Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments with no offset.  Under current law, the surviving spouse of a retired military member who dies from a service connected disability is entitled to Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Veterans’ Administration.

ROA is grateful for the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals decision in the Sharp vs. United States case that restored eligibility for DIC to military surviving spouses who remarry after 57 years of age; this only extends to about 400 spouses. Approximately 45,000 surviving spouse are left behind.

Service Members Law Center

ROA offers a unique area of expertise pertaining not only to Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), but also the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and other Guard/Reserve issues, through the Service Members Law Center run by director Captain Sam Wright, JAGC, USN (Ret.).

In the summer of 2009 ROA established the Service Members Law Center (SMLC) as a source of excellence in the areas of employment and consumer law for active, Guard and Reserve personnel.

The Law Center’s goals include the following:

  • Advise Active and Reserve members who have been subject to legal problems that relate to their military service.
  • Develop a network of legal scholars, law school clinics and private practitioners interested in legal issues of direct importance to servicemembers.
  • Advance world-class continuing legal education on issues relating to USERRA and SCRA.
  • Broaden the existing database of USERRA and SCRA research.
  • In conjunction with bar associations, develop standards that will help to ensure that lawyers to whom servicemembers are referred for legal services have the requisite expertise to represent them effectively.

Recruiting and retaining members of the armed services, especially those in the National Guard and Reserves, depends in part on assuring current and future Citizen Warriors that laws and regulations are in place to protect them effectively from discriminatory practices.

The Law Center is functioning at a modest but effective level. ROA is pursuing efforts to obtain private or public funding and to identify public and private entities willing to sustain this effort in order to expand this service to fuller capacity. This is especially needed following potential cuts to the National Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).

As part of the SMLC and under CAPT Wright, the Law Center maintains the “Law Review” data base and indices containing over 700 articles on USERRA and SCRA issues (available at www.roa.org/law_review_archive). On a monthly basis CAPT Wright receives about 500 calls from concerned servicemembers, families and attorneys. On a monthly basis for the past several months about 80 percent of the calls were about USERRA.

The Law Center’s services include:

  • Counseling: Review cases, and advise individuals and their lawyers as to lawfulness of actions taken against deployed Active and Reserve Component members.
  • Referral: Provide names of attorneys within a region that have successfully taken up USERRA, SCRA and other military-related issues.  
  • Promote: Publish articles encouraging law firms and lawyers to represent servicemembers in USERRA, SCRA and other military-related cases.
  • Advise: File amicus curiae, “friend of the court” briefs on servicemember protection cases.
  • Educate: Quarterly seminars to educate attorneys a better understanding of USERRA, SCRA and other military-related issues.

The Service Members Law Center is available at www.roa.org/Servicemembers_Law_Center.

Other Bills

ROA and REA support HR.2302 to amend title 10, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of the VA to notify Congress of conferences sponsored by the VA.

This bill encourages transparency and oversight which are important aspects of governance. Furthermore it would help to keep Congress apprised of VA’s activities and interest areas.

ROA and REA also support HR.2345 to amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the authorization for the Secretary of the VA to pay a monthly assistance allowance to disabled veterans training or competing for the Paralympic Team and the authorization for the Secretary to provide assistance to the United States Paralympics, Inc.

 Conclusion 

ROA and REA appreciate the opportunity to submit testimony, and we reiterate our profound gratitude for the progress achieved by this committee such as providing a GI Bill for the 21st Century and advanced funding for the VA. 

ROA and REA look forward to working with the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where we can present solutions to these and other issues, and offer our support. We hope in the future to have an opportunity to discuss these issues in person.

ROA and REA encourage this Committee to utilize the Service Members Law Center and reports, which are both valuable assets, and to share them with your constituents and other Congressional members.

DISCLOSURE OF FEDERAL GRANTS OR CONTRACTS

The Reserve Officers and Reserve Enlisted Associations are member-supported organizations. Neither ROA nor REA have received grants, subgrants, contracts, or subcontracts from the federal government in the past three years.  All other activities and services of the associations are accomplished free of any direct Federal funding.