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Submission For The Record of The American Legion

Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Commander Koutz and the 2.4 million members of The American Legion, we thank you and your colleagues for the work you do in support of our service members and veterans as well as their families. The hard work of this Subcommittee in creating significant legislation has left a positive impact on our military and veterans’ community.

Nationwide, The American Legion has over 2,600 accredited service officers to ensure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled at no cost to those veterans.  Not only do we advocate for the 2.4 million members in our organization but also the millions of veterans who do not hold membership; in short, we live by the motto “a veteran is a veteran” and is deserving of representation when seeking VA benefits.  We recognize the necessity to adequately compensate veterans and veterans’ families for disabilities incurred during service to our nation.  

As a grassroots organization, The American Legion draws upon the strength of its membership to provide guidance on policies in the form of resolutions passed in national assembly during annual national convention or at meetings of the National Executive Committee.  The will of the membership of the Legion is expressed through these resolutions, which support or oppose policy decisions on topics of concern, whether for veterans, the children and youth of America, the strong national defense or the principles of Americanism.  The support and positions of The American Legion on any legislation naturally derives from the guidance of these resolutions and the founding documents of our organization.

H.R. 569:  Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013

H.R. 570:  American Heroes COLA Act

H.R. 569:  To increase, effective as of December 1, 2013, the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans, and for other purposes.

H.R. 570:  To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for annual cost-of-living adjustments to be made automatically by law each year in the rates of disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain service-connected disabled veterans.

The American Legion strongly supports a periodic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for veterans reflective of increased expenses due to inflation and other factors.  However, there are many factors currently being considered regarding the calculation of COLA that merit discussion.

Within The American Legion’s Code of Procedures, accredited representatives are advised under no circumstances should they cause harm to veterans’ claims for benefits.  Current proposals in the President’s proposed budget, as well as in amendments to other bills that have been floated from time to time, would replace the current Consumer Price Index (CPI) used to calculate increases to Social Security COLA with a so-called Chained CPI (C-CPI).  Through chaining VA benefits to the new C-CPI and COLA for Social Security benefits, the veteran community would indeed be harmed.  On December 19, 2012, Dean Stoline, Deputy Director, The American Legion Legislative Division, stated that a chained CPI is misguided policy and “would have significant deleterious effect on the benefits of millions of veterans”.  

Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) has provided evidence that displays the long term negative effect upon the veteran community should Congress mandate a C-CPI approach to determining COLA increases.  According to a press release from Sen. Sanders’ office, the proposal would cut VA disability benefits for a 30-year-old veteran by more than $13,000 a year by age 45, $1,800 a year by age 55, and $2,260 a year by age 65. Senior citizens who retire by age 65 would see their Social Security benefits reduced by about $650 a year by the time they reach 75, and more than $1,000 a year when they turn 85.  These cuts would certainly place many veterans and their families’ economic security in peril.

By resolution  “The American Legion support[s] legislation to amend title 38, United States Code, section 1114, to provide a periodic COLA increase and to increase the monthly rates of disability compensation; and…oppose[s] any legislative effort to automatically index such [COLA] adjustments to the [COLA] adjustment for Social Security recipients, non-service connected disability recipients and death pension beneficiaries.”  The opposition to direct connection to the Social Security policies reflects the understanding that veterans and specifically disabled veterans represent a unique subsection of the American community, and their unique concerns should receive individual consideration when determining the need for periodic increases for cost of living.

We do not support either bill.  In fact, we encourage Congress to separate VA benefits from Social Security benefits altogether regarding COLA adjustments.  The long-term negative effects created through permitting C-CPI for VA benefits could prove disastrous to millions of veterans.

The American Legion supports an increased Cost-of-Living Adjustment for veterans, but is unable to support these bills at this time until they reflect assurances that veterans’ needs will be adequately reflected and not subject to whims of overzealous cost cutting measures.

H.R. 602:  Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act

H.R. 602: To amend title 38, United States Code, to clarify the conditions under which certain persons may be treated as adjudicated mentally incompetent for certain purposes.

It is both sad and ironic that the veterans’ community, a community in which each and every member swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States to include the 2nd Amendment, requires advocacy to maintain its constitutional right to bear arms. Unless deemed unfit to possess weapons by a judicial authority with the full benefit of due process, each veteran regardless of disability should maintain the right to possess a firearm.  Any constitutional right should engender this same expectation of careful scrutiny to ensure no right is removed without due process.

On December 2, 2012, NBC News published an article regarding veteran hunting trips as a form of therapy for combat hardened veterans .  Throughout the nation, numerous organizations organize hunting trips for veterans.  Even the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acknowledges the positive effects of shooting firearms for some veterans.  Jose Llamas, community and public affairs officer for VA’s National Veterans Sports Program, stated that hunting is included in a veteran’s health-life plan.  At various adaptive sports summits throughout the nation, veterans can enjoy target shooting.  Additionally, a recent $25,000 grant was made to the Grand Junction, Colorado, VA Medical Center, to purchase the necessary equipment for veterans to hunt.  

Furthermore, there are concerns that the threat of being placed on a list that might deny them of their 2nd Amendment rights could act as a deterrent for veterans who might otherwise seek treatment.  When the positive effects of therapy for conditions such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are so important, driving veterans away for fear of repercussions such as confiscation of firearms could only exacerbate existing stigmas.

During the 94th National Convention of The American Legion, Resolution 68 was passed.  According to the resolution, “The American Legion reaffirms its recognition that the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees each law-abiding American citizen the right to keep and bear arms; and, be it finally resolved, that the membership of The American Legion urges our nation’s lawmakers to recognize, as part of their oaths of office, that the Second Amendment guarantees law-abiding citizens the right to keep and bear arms of their choice, as do the millions of American veterans who have fought, and continue to fight, to preserve those rights, hereby advise the Congress of the United States and the Executive Department to cease and desist any and all efforts to restrict these right by any legislation or order.”

The American Legion supports this bill.

H.R. 671:  “Ruth Moore Act of 2013”

H.R. 671:  To amend title 28, United States Code, to improve the disability compensation evaluation procedure of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for veterans with mental health conditions related to military sexual trauma, and for other purposes.

The American Legion’s accredited representatives located in VA Regional Offices, state and county offices, and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals have acknowledged a unique situation exists for victims of military sexual trauma (MST).  MST is often an unreported crime, or even in the best cases poorly documented.  Even when MST is reported, it is not uncommon for a lackluster investigation to occur and the perpetrator of the crime to be brought to justice.
On March 26, 2013, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a study: Returning Home from Iraq and Afghanistan: Assessment of Readjustment Needs of Veterans, Service Members, and Their Families.  According to the study, “[M]ilitary sexual trauma has been occurring in high rates throughout the U.S. armed forces, including the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Sexual harassment and assaults disproportionately affect women; they have both mental and physical ramifications, and in many cases these victims have a difficult time readjusting.”  It is evident by the study that a staggering number of veterans reported suffering MST; over 48,000 women and 43,000 men reported experiencing MST.
H.R. 671 addresses the concerns raised repeatedly by The American Legion regarding MST.  In testimony provided by The American Legion before this subcommittee on July 18, 2012, Lori Perkio, Assistant Director, The American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, pointed to changes regarding combat zones made by VA regarding posttraumatic stress disorder in 2010 and asserted that equal treatment should be applied to MST victims.  Both combat zones and MST related claims are similar in that both types of claims reflect situations where there is a known and acknowledged lack of record keeping.  Regulations have allowed for extra latitude on behalf of combat veterans to reflect the lack of record keeping, but the same consideration is not extended to rape and assault survivors, though their trauma is no less devastating.  
The American Legion believes that VA should review “military personnel files in all MST claims and apply reduced criteria to MST-related PTSD to match that of combat-related PTSD .”  H.R. 671 adequately addresses this resolution by setting up similar criteria for MST victims as those in effect for combat victims.
The American Legion supports this bill.

H.R. 679:  “Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act”
H.R. 679: To amend title 38, United States Code to recognize the service in the reserve components of certain persons by honoring them with status as veterans under law.
This legislation would provide a purely honorific title of veteran for those individuals who completed appropriate service in the National Guard and Reserve components of the Armed Forces, but for whatever reason do not have active duty service sufficient to bestow a title of veteran subject to the conditions provided for under the normal titles of the United States Code which assign veteran status for the purposes of benefits.  This bill would not provide any benefit beyond the title of ‘veteran’ and is stated to be intended purely as a point of honor.
The American Legion has no position on this legislation.
H.R. 733:  “Access to Veterans Benefit Improvement Act”
H.R. 733:  To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide certain employees of Members of Congress and certain employees of State or local governmental agencies with access to case-tracking information of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This legislation would entitle governmental employees in Congress as well as state and local governments to access case tracking information through the VA claims process.
The American Legion has no position on this legislation.
H.R. 894: Improvement of Fiduciaries for Veterans
H.R. 894: To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the supervision of fiduciaries of veterans under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Attention to the VA Fiduciary program came before congressional subcommittees in 2010 and again in 2012. Veterans who have been deemed as mentally incompetent by VA standards deserve every effort to protect them from any possible injustice.

Ensuring background checks are completed on all fiduciaries as well as providing the veterans their choice of family member before any other fiduciary is appointed should never be optional and must be completed in an expedited manner.  Requiring the VA to create a database of all appointed fiduciaries would reduce the time to appoint needed fiduciaries and not over burden those already being utilized with more beneficiaries than is appropriate.  The beneficiary needs to be able to utilize their VA monetary benefits beyond the payment of daily living expenses. When large amounts of monetary “ savings” are created by the fiduciary that were in some cases turned back over to the VA after the death of the beneficiary  needs to be provided to the surviving family members of the beneficiary as it is with all other VA monetary benefits.  Veterans who have been deemed incompetent by VA deserve the same respect and quality of life as those who have not been deemed incompetent.  

The VA created fiduciary “hubs” to streamline and better utilize their resources. The emphasis now needs to be focused on serving and protecting the same veterans who selflessly served their country.  The myriad provisions of this bill serve to strengthen protections for veterans and their families, and address many of the concerns which have been raised by this committee and concerned veterans groups over the course of the past several years through hearings addressing the topic.  As those veterans deemed to need a fiduciary are often among the most vulnerable veterans, special care must be taken to ensure any legislation on their behalf is fully protective of the veteran first.  The American Legion is willing to work with the committee to ensure the technical language of this bill is consistent with the veteran first protective mindset.

The American Legion supports this legislation.

H.R. 1405

H.R. 1405: To amend title 38, United States Code, to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to include an appeals form in any notice of decision issued for the denial of a benefit sought.

The American Legion understands that H.R. 1405 will require the Secretary of VA to provide an appeals form with any notice of decision denying the veteran benefits.  The bill fails to consider if the same letter would be mailed to a veteran where a full granting of the benefit does not occur.  A veteran could be granted a 30 percent disability rating; however, after review of the veteran’s case, it could be argued that a 70 percent disability rating is warranted.  Through VA’s failure to include this letter, the veteran may not realize the existence of appellate review for the claim.

The American Legion believes in protecting the appellate rights of veterans, and ensuring the process gives clear and understandable information to help them make proper decisions about when they should appeal the decisions rendered regarding their claims.  Although The American Legion does not currently have a resolution to address this issue, we do welcome the opportunity to work with Congress regarding this bill to further investigate the process and ensure the appellate rights of veterans are being served in the most beneficial manner possible.  We encourage the Committee to consider all veterans’ appellate rights with regard to this bill.

The American Legion has no position on this legislation.
For any questions regarding this testimony please contact Ian de Planque, Deputy Legislative Director of The American Legion at (202) 863-2700 or ideplanque@legion.org