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Witness Testimony of Richard F. Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs, Vietnam Veterans of America

Good Morning, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, and distinguished Members of this panel.  On behalf of our National President, John Rowan, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) thanks you for the opportunity to appear here today to express our views on this vital veterans’ issue of how well the Local Veteran Employment Representative (LVER) program and the Disabled Veteran Outreach Program (DVOP) is working, particularly for disabled veterans, recently separated service members, and those veterans most at risk.. My name is Rick Weidman, and I currently serve as Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs for VVA.

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) has repeatedly advocated the “wellness” model as the paradigm toward which all of the programs, benefits, and services for should be aimed. What this means is that it is the duty of the people of the United States, through our government institutions and with our community resources, to do everything possible to restore the men and women who have placed their lives on the line in the common defense to the highest degree of autonomy and functioning possible following that military service.

Said another way, all of us should be using a “holistic” view of the physiological, neuro-psychiatric, and psycho-social aspects of health of all returning veterans, but particularly disabled veterans. The ‘litmus test’ of achieving the highest degree of “wellness” possible for veterans of working age is the ability to obtain and sustain meaningful employment.

While VVA still believes that the Nation’s health care system for veterans is still under-funded, despite strong increases this year, and that the organizational capacity of the VHA is not yet adequate to meet the full range of legitimate needs of the eligible veterans’ population, the simple fact is that we as a Nation do spend billions every year on health care, readjustment counseling, vocational rehabilitation, educational benefits, PTSD treatment, substance abuse treatment, and numerous other programs designed to assist veterans.  However, if the veteran is not assisted to obtain and sustain meaningful employment, then there is no “payoff” for the individual or for the Nation. 

It is because of this centrality of obtaining and securing meaningful employment at a living wage is in the readjustment process, particularly of our newest veterans, that what this panel does is so key to a “pay-off” of all of the rest of the efforts extended by our nation.

 As you know, the DVOP and LVER programs operate at the state level through federal grants from VETS.  For far too long, VVA has observed a significant disparity in the levels of performance between the varying states.  Some states, such as South Carolina, do a great job.  Others do not perform as well, and some might appear not to care whether they do a good job or not.  They get the same amount of money whether they do a good job or not they do a good job or even try to do a reasonably sufficient job.

Please let me note that I cannot emphasize too much that nothing in this statement should be taken as a criticism of DVOPs and LVERs. Some of the finest and most dedicated veterans’ advocates (and finest people, period) I have ever had the pleasure and honor of knowing are DVOPs or LVERs. These folks are eclectic, as any large group would be, and some are more skilled and effective than others. However, as a group, I am always impressed by these fine Americans who do often do great work, no matter what they have to do to accomplish the mission, and no matter how much they may be punished for trying to do their job correctly, and despite how poorly they are paid in some states.

Just as there are many individual veteran staff who are doing a great job, there are some states, like South Carolina, North Carolina, South Dakota, North Dakota, and others who have always done a great job for veterans because it is ingrained in their corporate culture by consistently having fine state leadership that is committed to veterans over a long period of time. There are also individual office managers who fully support services to veterans, and who go out of their way to support the DVOPs and LVERs in their area, as well as using other resources to help get the job done.

Similarly, the several GAO reports in the last five years note that a veteran can receive services from a non-DVOP or non-LVER if they are considered job ready.  VVA agrees that this should be the case, given that “priority of service” has been re-established as the law. However, there are so few what is called “Wagner-Peyser” staff left out there, So, as a practical matter almost all veterans are sent to the veteran’s staff.

The system is actually even more “broken” today than it was before the passage of the Jobs for Veterans Act in 2002 (which originated in this Subcommittee), with even more financial and operational problems. It is still not performance and results oriented in any meaningful way, nor is it meeting the needs of veterans in need of the services it ostensibly provides.

 Due to a decision by the Employment & Training Administration (ETA) the current measure of “placements” is intellectually and otherwise dishonest, and a preposterous example of the “post hoc, ergo proper hoc” logical fallacy. Just because someone registered with the public labor exchange, and then gets their own job with no help from that State employment security agency (sesa) does not mean that sesa did anything meaningful toward securing that position. But that is what happens when the sesa compares the Social Security numbers of their registrations with the UI tax rolls, which is what they do today.   Service disabled veterans, particularly those coming home from today’s wars, and veterans with significant barriers to employment are even more short-changed today than they were in 2002. The former Secretary of Labor put the former Assistant Secretary of Labor for ETA in charge of implementing the Jobs for Veterans Act.  Given the history of ETA, it should come as no surprise that this well meaning law does not work as intended by this body.

 We have needed a true national strategy to deal properly with the returning service members for some time now. The last truly national veterans’ employment conference was held in Buffalo, New York in May, 1991.

Further, what is needed today is a system that focuses on placement (real placements, not the dishonest nonsense that Labor is currently using) of the highest priority veterans, who are special disabled veterans (especially catastrophically disabled veterans), recently separated veterans and recently de-mobilized members of the National Guard and Reserve, and on veterans who are homeless or “at risk.”

We must get away from the notion that this is a “cheap” process, and focus on quality placements for those most in need.

Inadequate coordination between DOD and VA in regard to all aspects of care for seriously disabled returning veterans, but particularly with regard to VA Vocational Rehabilitation continues to be a significant problem. It be fruitful for the Committee to look into whether all of the recommendations of the GAO Reports have been implemented, and how that coordination affects the VA/DOL relationship. VVA would suggest that the Committee take steps to verify any quick answers you receive from DOD or VA regarding these recommendations.

We must insist on real collaboration and cooperation between DOL-VETS and VA, to include both VA Voc Rehab and the Readjustment Counseling Service (VET Centers) at both the national as well as the state/local level. This written comprehensive plan of action, as recommended repeatedly by the GAO, must be specific, be able to be measured, and have a mechanism for managers to be held accountable for actual improvements in performance. In some areas of the country this relationship has improved, but it needs to be made consistent, and be measurable (and actually measured) in every area of the country, with appropriate rewards and sanctions for managers involved on the VA side and on the DOL side.

There simply must be a viable national strategy developed to deal with employment of the returning service members from the Global War on Terrorism. While there is a commendable plan by the President and the Director of Office of Personnel Management to bring more veterans, especially disabled veterans into Federal service, it is the private sector that we need involved in a major way. As we come out of this recession and employers start hiring again, there must be a public/private effort ready to move veterans, particularly disabled veterans to the head of the line.

More than one and one half million service members have already rotated through Iraq alone, many of them two or three times. If the Administration will not move to fashion such a results oriented plan, then we call on you, Mr. Chairman, and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill, to reach out and call a convocation of public and private entities to put together a real action plan to make a difference, as was done after World War II. 

The veterans’ staff members need to be made Federal employees, answerable to the federally funded state Director of VETS. VVA has come to this conclusion reluctantly, after trying for 25 years to make the relationship with the state employment services agencies work. The state agencies have know that it might come to this for a decade, yet there has been no movement by them to “clean up their act.” We simply cannot waste any more time, as the returning veterans deserve and need employment services that work, and they need those services now.

Although it is not popular to add to the Federal workforce, this is something that must be done now. It is not only the right thing to do for these fine young veterans, but it is a necessary thing to do. It is in fact a matter of national defense.

 We must think anew, and then act swiftly, in order not to fail the brave young men and women defending us in military service today, and those who are still recuperating from their wounds who are already home.

Mr. Chairman, on behalf of all of us at VVA, I thank you and your distinguished colleagues for the opportunity to present our views here today. We would be pleased to answer any questions.