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Submission For The Record of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, and members of the committee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s 200,000 Member Veterans and supporters, I thank you for inviting me to submit this testimony and share the views of our members’ on these important pieces of legislation. 

My name is Ramsey Sulayman and I am a legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). I am a major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, have seen life on active-duty and the reserves, and I deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, serving as an infantry platoon commander and company executive officer with a reconnaissance unit operating on the western border with Syria. The view expressed in this testimony are those of IAVA and do not reflect any position held by the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has two missions: winning battles and making Marines. The first mission is what we are known for: Marines have demonstrated their prowess in war for over 236 years. The second is a duty I believe continues throughout life. As the saying goes, there are no ex-Marines. I’m proud to continue to serve through my work at IAVA and to say to all members of our armed forces, past and present, “I’ve got your back.”

Bill #

Name/Subject

Sponsor

Position

H.R. 3329

Extend VocRehab eligibility to 15 years

Rep. Sanchez, Linda

Support

H.R. 3483

In state tuition fix to the Post-9/11 GI Bill

Rep. Butterfield

Support

H.R. 3524

Leave for veterans seeking treatment for injuries

Rep. Braley

Support

H.R. 3610

Moving Vet employment services to the States

Rep. Foxx

Oppose

H.R. 3670

Extending USERRA protections to the TSA

Rep. Walz

Support

H.R. 4048

Veterans preference to the GSA catalogue

Rep. Johnson

Support

H.R. 4051

Extending TAP off base

Rep. Stutzman

Support

H.R. 4052

Recognizing GI Bill friendly schools

Rep. Stutzman

Support

H.R. 4057

Consumer education for student veterans

Rep. Bilirakis

Support

H.R. 4072

Moving VETS program from DoL to VA

Rep. Miller

Support

H.R. 3329 - IAVA supports H.R. 3329, extending veterans’ eligibility to apply for VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits from 12 to 15 years. Given the experience from past wars, most notably Vietnam, we should lay the foundation to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who may not show disabling conditions for years to come. Extending the eligibility to apply for Voc Rehab benefits is a prudent, low-cost step that can be taken before any need arises; which is to say, before it is too late to do much good.

H.R. 3483 - IAVA supports H.R. 3483, the Veterans Education Equity Act of 2011, and its attempt to address an inequity with the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Currently, GI Bill payments for out-of-state students are limited to the cost of in-state tuition. Veterans attending a private school in the same state can receive up to $17,500 in tuition and fee assistance. Veterans who choose to attend a public school in a state where they do not legally reside often incur a sizable debt burden to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. Ideally, we would prefer that all schools that receive GI Bill funds treat all veterans and their dependants as in-state residents.  However, bringing the out of state tuition and fee cap on par with the cap for private schools is an acceptable compromise.

H.R. 3524 – IAVA supports H.R. 3524, the Disabled Veterans Employment Protection Act. The decrease in the rate of fatalities during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in comparison with historical levels has been a welcome development. However, many more service members survive with either physical or mental health injuries. When these veterans re-enter civilian life and the workforce, their injuries still require treatment and this often entails extended absence from a veteran’s place of employment. H.R. 3524, assures that veterans can more fully recover from their service connected injuries while remaining employed.

H.R. 3610 – IAVA opposes H.R. 3610. IAVA recognizes that the intent of H.R. 3610 reflects valid concerns about tailoring employment help for veterans to local economies: the needs in Silicon Valley might differ substantially from the manufacturing centers in Michigan. However, IAVA opposes the methods H.R. 3610 proposes to meet this goal.  We believe that transferring veterans employment funding and services to the states removes valuable Congressional oversight and risks lowering standards for these programs. Among our most pressing concerns is that states could choose not to receive grant funds, thereby eliminating services altogether. Our fears are not allayed by the argument that such a circumstance is “unlikely.” Furthermore, the fact that spending is now solely at the discretion of the states means the funds currently used to help veterans could be used for other purposes, thereby diluting their effect and lessening the help available for transitioning or displaced veterans. Additionally, programs that are now successful could have their funding cut or their focus shifted as states focus on other employment priorities. Therefore, IAVA opposes passage of H.R. 3610.

H.R. 3670 – IAVA supports H.R. 3670. USERRA is a critical reemployment safeguard for members of the Guard and Reserves.  IAVA believes that USERRA protections should be extended to all state and federal employees. H.R. 3670 addresses this gap in USERRA protection for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security employed nearly 47,000 veterans, many of them in the TSA. It is only reasonable that Guardsmen and Reservists who are employed by the federal government receive the same protections as their peers who are employed in the private sector.

H.R. 4048- IAVA supports H.R. 4048, extending veterans preference to veteran-owned small businesses that wish to list services to the federal government in the GSA catalogue. Extending contracting preference to veteran-owned business has historically been an effective and sensible method of ensuring that veterans find quality employment after leaving service. At a time where veteran unemployment is staggering, this bill will provide more opportunities for veteran business owners to offer goods and services to the country that they have fought to protect.

H.R. 4051 - IAVA supports H.R. 4051, the TAP Modernization Act of 2011. It’s smart policy to allow veterans who have already been through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and their spouses the opportunity to retake the program. TAP is taken at the very end of a service member’s time in service and during a transition that, even in the best of circumstances, is hectic. The opportunity to retake TAP as a refresher is a valuable resource. IAVA endorses H.R. 4051, but we believe that the pilot program should be scaled up quickly, ahead of schedule and to more locations if it proves successful. IAVA understands that limiting the scope and geography of the pilot program is necessary initially; however, we suggest incorporating a set of benchmarks to determine the efficacy of the program prior to the three and a half year deadline set in the current version of the legislation.

H.R. 4052 - IAVA supports H.R. 4052, the Recognizing Excellence in Veterans Education Act of 2012. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most significant veterans’ benefits in the last half-century. One of the key obstacles for many veterans to effectively utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the lack of good information available to help them make sound educational and job training choices. H.R. 4052, will help bring clarity to this process.  This program will serve as a beacon marking veteran-friendly schools with the Excellence in Veterans Education Award. The criteria for awarding the Excellence in Veterans Education Award are excellent indicators that an educational institution places value on its student veterans, from the academic (graduation rates) to the financial (full participation in the Yellow Ribbon program).

H.R. 4057 – IAVA supports H.R. 4057, the Improving Transparency of Educational Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012.  IAVA’s main priority is to ensure transparency and accountability in GI Bill benefits and their use. IAVA believes that the GI Bill is the most effective program available for transforming our generation of veterans into the “New Greatest Generation.” IAVA also realizes that, like the original GI Bill, unscrupulous actors whose goals are to take advantage of veterans by poaching their hard earned benefits is a threat to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. If we do not preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, we will lose this transformational benefit. IAVA advocates a three-prong strategy to ensure that VA educational benefits are used wisely: 1) data collection, 2) consumer education, and 3) regulation enforcement through market means.

H.R. 4057 stresses the first two and IAVA supports this approach. We believe that the availability of clear and equivalent data, available in an easily accessible and transparent format, is an essential element to ensure smart use of VA educational benefits. All schools, regardless of profit goal or government support, should have to provide this information so that students can assess how a given school meets their needs. IAVA believes that College Navigator, a site run by the Department of Education, is an excellent model. However, the data is inconsistent; not all schools report the same data. Mandating that all schools report the same data is crucial.

While IAVA supports the goals of H.R. 4057, as well as the legislation itself, we would like to address some areas of potential concern. We are pleased to see a broad definition of post-secondary education and training opportunities, but are concerned that emphasis on “commercially available off-the-shelf online tool(s)” will have limitations. We are concerned that an existing tool currently in the government’s toolbox (like College Navigator) might be bypassed for a commercial option, like GIBill.com or EducationConnection.com, which are a funnel sites for mostly for-profit schools.

H.R. 4072 - IAVA supports H.R. 4072, the Consolidating Veterans’ Employment Services for Improved Performance Act of 2012. Given that the unemployment rate for OIF/OEF-era veterans has hovered around 25% higher than the civilian rate, IAVA continues to scan the horizon for innovative approaches to solve the veteran unemployment crisis. H.R. 4072 takes a different tactic than most, focusing on a veterans’ first point of contact when they leave service: veteran employment services. Two of the critiques we at IAVA hear most often from veterans is that a multitude of overlapping services cloud options rather than clarify them. Additionally, competing programs and services muddle rather than sharpen the focus on getting vets employed. By bringing the Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service (DoL VETS) into the Department of Veterans Administration (VA), duplication of effort will be minimized by creating synergies and leveraging resources within one department while still maintaining the capability to leverage across executive branch departments.

This idea is not new, but has never coalesced into action. Now is the time for action. Under the current system, DoL VETS receives funding from DoL to execute VA priorities. It is like having one member of the House of Representatives located in the Senate. Aligning the resources of VETS with the veteran-centric mission of the VA results is an obvious streamlining of control, communication and resources.

IAVA recognizes that there are many questions to be answered and details to be considered. However, we feel that H.R. 4072 is thorough in its application and intent. H.R. 4072 transfers VETS on a one-for-one basis in funding and importance from DoL to VA and IAVA’s support for H.R. 4072 is contingent on that point. VETS must remain well funded and maintained at the organizational rank at VA that it currently occupies at DoL.

Caring for the men and women who defend freedom is a solemn responsibility that belongs to lawmakers, business leaders, and everyday citizens alike.  In the past several years, we have seen a turning point in the way we care and provide for our nation’s warriors.  Despite critical successes, however, veterans’ education and employment services are still not up to standard. We must remain ever vigilant and continue to show the men and women who volunteer to serve their country that we have their backs.  Thank you for your time and attention.