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Witness Testimony of Justin Brown, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Legislative Associate, National Legislative Service

MADAM CHAIRWOMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS SUBCOMMITTEE:

On behalf of the 2.3 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, I would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to testify. The issues under consideration today are of great importance to our members, and the entire veteran population.

In the history of our nation there have always been great men and women who have put everything on the line for our country. Our nation is full of these heroes, who join together to create the world’s strongest, most impressive, and smartest military. However, our military is not maintaining the quality of the force. According to a recent GAO report, the percentage of high quality recruits in the Army fell to 49 percent in 2006—the lowest level in more than 20 years and the lowest among the services. Also, the total number of medical and criminal waivers has risen steadily from 11.5% of recruits in 2004 to 16.9% of recruits in 2006 (10.1% of 2006 recruits were waived for pre-service drug use, criminal charges, or convictions).

From 1973-1985, similar recruitment standards produced veterans that were three to four times more likely to be homeless than their non-veteran counterparts, even without most of this group suffering the stresses and strains of combat or the mental and physical problems that follow.

The risks and costs of joining the Army are becoming more and more apparent to young men and women who are eligible for recruitment. To join today’s military is to risk death; it is to risk mental and physical impairments; it is to risk one’s marriage; it is to risk the custody of one’s children; it is to risk employment; and it is to risk economic success.  The military’s strongest recruitment tool of a college education is fast eroding as potential recruits learn of the shortfalls and failures of the current benefits provided to those who risk everything for their nation.

There are two strategies to solve the issue and respectively there are two outcomes. The Army and Marine Corps have not met their goal of high-quality recruits since 2003. DoD’s response has been to lower recruitment standards, thereby enlarging the pool of eligible recruits, to meet their recruitment needs. The consequence of such actions is creating a situation in which the military becomes the employer of last resort. This will likely lead us to larger expenditures in the long term, than investing in a robust, attractive, proven recruitment tool—a GI-Bill that pays for the full cost of education: tuition, room, board, fees, and a cost-of-living stipend.

Increased funding, albeit necessary, is not the only issue with our current GI-Bill. Our veterans, and military, need a GI-Bill that incentivizes going to the best college possible, not the cheapest. Also, a new GI-Bill ought to equitably distribute benefits to veterans. A single payment system becomes inhibitive to many and too generous for others.

The GI-Bill is a cost of war; we can pay it now as an investment, or pay it later in much greater costs to our government and our veterans. If we decide to defer this cost it will be for increased appropriations for permanent housing for homeless veterans, increased appropriations for the expansion of the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, and increased appropriations due to a further reliance on the VA medical and benefits system. 

The VFW asks that America does its best to ensure our veterans a normal life with the same opportunities as those who chose to go to college, or as those who chose to go into the workforce, vice serving their nation. It is simple, and readily apparent, that if we continue to fail to provide our young men and women a bridge from the all volunteer force back to a civilian lifestyle, fewer high-quality young men and women will volunteer to serve their country.

H.R. 3298, 21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act.

We support this legislation, which would expand the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to cover service contracts such as cellular phone service, car insurance, utilities, cable television, or internet access. This legislation would allow troops with deployment orders to terminate or suspend their service contracts without fee or penalty. The current SCRA legislation applies no penalties for creditors who refuse to reduce interest rates as required; this legislation would create a penalty mechanism thereby increasing the likelihood for companies to comply with the law. This is important because many deployed men and women are coming home to large bills that were not efficiently cancelled by service providers.

H.R. 3393, Reservist Access to Justice Act of 2007.

The VFW believes that there is great need for reform to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 2004 (USERRA). The original intent of USERRA was to provide employment protections to veterans in Reserve and Guard units who were being deployed. The current USERRA is not getting the job done as many veterans are returning from deployments without their previous employment.

H.R. 3393 would correct some previous court decisions that favored employers. The bill would hold federal, state or private employers liable for up to $20,000 in liquidated damages if they willfully discriminated against employees who are activated to active-duty status. The bill would also increase the likelihood that the courts would award injunctive relief to those making USERRA claims. The bill would stipulate that veterans are not bound to pre-arbitration agreements.

The VFW Strongly supports these necessary reforms to USERRA, and supports its swift passage. Our Reserve and Guard units should come home to their previous employment if they choose to do so. They have served in the name of their country and should be treated honorably.

H.R. 3467, Second Chance for America's Veterans Act.

The Second Chance for America’s Veterans Act would extend and provide funding for the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program (IVTP). During its pilot phase, IVTP stated it reduced recidivism rates amongst participants by 90 percent. IVTP also recorded that 90 percent of its participants were moved into permanent housing, and 72 percent became gainfully employed. Under this assumption, IVTP has saved taxpayers millions of dollars a year in incarceration costs and has stimulated local job growth and economic development by providing former offenders with jobs. The pilot program stopped receiving funding as of September 2007. If this program continues to reduce recidivism rates for veterans and offsets the cost of the program with the cost of incarceration, the VFW supports this program and this legislation.

H.R. 3646, To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Labor to conduct a joint study on the fields of employment for which the greatest need for employees exists in various geographic areas.

The VFW supports this legislation, which would assist veterans in finding employment based on the needs of local employers. While the VFW is aware of the strong unemployment levels of recently separated servicemembers, and the importance of locating potential employment opportunities for veterans, it is also important to give these veterans access to training and education should they want to pursue a technical vocation, college degree, or certification. It is the VFW’s belief that increased transitional benefits, the GI-Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation in particular, are the best answer to employment issues facing veterans, especially in regards to our recently separated servicemembers.

H.R. 3681, Veterans Benefits Awareness Act of 2007

The VFW supports this legislation, which would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to advertise in the national media in regards to veterans benefits. The VFW believes that targeted national media campaigns could be conducive to ensuring America’s veterans are receiving necessary information in a timely manner. Other departments frequently utilize national media and advertisement with great success. In particular, DoD uses national media extensively for recruitment. It is the belief of the VFW that our government should be as proactive in their approach to veteran’s welfare as they are in making them.

H.R. 3889, To amend title 38, United States Code, to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct a longitudinal study of the vocational rehabilitation programs administered by the Secretary.

The VFW supports this legislation, which would provide information in regards to the effectiveness of the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. The VFW would like to see this, and similar studies, conducted on all educational, transitional, and employment benefits, as very little is known in regards to the end results provided by our current transitional benefits. Such a study, and tracking, of the benefit and participants would provide Congress and the VA invaluable information as to what is, and what is not, working in regards to benefits that are currently being distributed for the purpose of employment and education.

H.R. 3798, National Guard Employment Protection Act of 2007.

The VFW supports this legislation that would ensure that the National Guard receives equal employment protections under USERRA. This legislation clears up a legal loophole for employers of National Guard members. The National Guard, like our Reserve components, deserves full employment protections while serving our country.

H.R. 4539, Department of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act of 2007.

The VFW would like to see the loan fees of the VA home loan guarantee program repealed. While this legislation does not repeal the fees, it would make them more feasible for veterans using the program by extending them over a period of time. The VFW strongly supports provisions of the bill that would increase the max loan VA can guarantee to 125% of the Freddie Mac conforming limit, currently $521,250. This legislation would also reduce the equity requirement for the VA to guaranty a mortgage refinance from 10 percent currently to 0 percent. We also support the provisions that would raise refinance loans to the conforming limit and increase the guaranty for affordable housing (as determined by VA and HUD) to 30% of the total loan. This legislation also authorizes VA to use a portion of the previous year’s fee revenue to reduce closing costs.

H.R. 4883, To amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide for a limitation on the sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property owned by a servicemember during the one-year period following the servicemember's period of military service.

This legislation would temporarily increase servicemembers’ foreclosure relief from 90 days to one year. This legislation would help families that have been caught in the subprime mortgage crisis and/or are in risk of default on their mortgage due to military service. This legislation could be the difference between a servicemember’s family having a home or being homeless.

H.R.4884, Helping Our Veterans to Keep Their Homes Act of 2008.

The VFW supports this legislation, that would: increase the maximum home loan guarantee amount to $625,500; decrease the equity requirement to refinance a home loan; require the VA Secretary to review and streamline the process of using a guaranteed home loan to purchase a condominium; reduce the home loan funding fees to one percent; extend the adjustable and hybrid rate mortgage demonstration projects to 2018; and provide a yearly adjustment of the VA home loan to match the consumer price index.

H.R. 4889, The Guard and Reserves Are Fighting Too Act of 2008.

The VFW strongly supports this legislation, which would recodify chapter 1607 of title 10, United States Code, by adding it to title 38, United States Code. This in affect would transfer responsibility of the National Guard and Ready Reserves educational benefits from the Department of Defense to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This would greatly simplify an already complicated system and allow for the greatest amount of transitional assistance in one location, the VA. Since the introduction of transportability in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008—which allows National Guard and Reservist to use their benefit following their service—the VFW believes that their educational benefits should be the responsibility of the VA.

H.R. 5664, To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to update at least once every six years the plans and specifications for specially adapted housing furnished to veterans by the Secretary.

The VFW supports this legislation. That would require VA to periodically update its publications so that they reflect current times and methods. The current Handbook For Design: Specially Adapted Housing, that is printed and distributed by VA, was last updated in April 1978. Having a title date that is thirty years old could easily, and would likely be, misconstrued as old out-of-date material.

H.R. 5684, Veterans Education Improvement Act of 2008.

The VFW supports this legislation, which would provide for an increased monetary benefit. It would also increase the time limitation for use from ten years to fifteen years. It does not repeal the $1,200 buy in, but it would make it more palatable by distributing the buy in over a 24 month period, instead of a twelve month period. H.R. 5684 would extend the amount of programs that the educational benefit could be used for and could also be used to repay student loans. The bill would allow for active-duty military to enroll in the GI-Bill program at anytime during their service. This benefit would not be counted against veterans applying for additional financial aid. The bill would also provide funding for additional employment for the VA to implement the legislation and calls for a five year pilot program for on-campus work-study positions. Also, of importance is the bills section calling for an upgrade in the antiquated VA’s informational technology system that is used for the administration of educational benefits.

Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony and I will be pleased to respond to any questions you or the members of this Subcommittee may have.  Thank you.