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Witness Testimony of Mr. Alexander Nicholson, Chief Policy Officer, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano, & Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:
On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, I would like to thank you for convening a hearing on these bills, and for your continued dedication to improving the lives of and opportunities available to America’s veterans. We also appreciate this invitation to share our organization’s members’ views on these particular bills before us here today.
IAVA is the nation’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters. Founded in 2004, our mission is critically important but simple – to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. With a steadily growing base of over 200,000 members and supporters, we strive to help create a society that honors and supports veterans of all generations.
While our country’s economic position and the employment status of all Americans remains a grave concern for everyone, it should distress each and every one of us that America’s newest veterans – those who have shouldered the burden of fighting our recent wars – are being hit the hardest. In its most recent release on the employment status of veterans, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that one out of every ten post-9/11 veterans is unemployed. Alarmingly, the rate rises even higher for female veterans.
And although we are focused here today on legislation to enhance opportunities for veterans who are able to work, I would be remiss if I did not remind the committee members that those who cannot seek work because of a service-connected disability continue to face an unacceptably backlogged VA disability claims pipeline, which denies those veterans who cannot work the compensation the deserve to make up for their loss of earnings. This problem, which has seen astronomical growth since 2009 despite a 40% increase in the VA’s budget over that period, needs your urgent attention as well.  
But for those veterans who are able to work and who want nothing more than to be able to transition back into civilian life, get an education, find gainful employment, and build a better life for themselves and their families after faithfully and honorably carrying out their service obligations, we owe it to them to ensure that they have the tools, resources, and knowledge to successfully take those next steps in life. As a result, IAVA is supportive of all of the legislation that is the subject of this hearing today. We believe that these bills provide important improvements upon existing programs that serve these purposes.

H.R. 357
IAVA supports H.R. 357, which would grant in-state status for all veterans using the GI Bill. For those who elect to return to school after completing their military service obligations, the GI Bill has been a remarkable personal development and economic mobility tool for our nation’s veterans, and a tremendously successful investment for our country. The new, Post-9/11 GI Bill in particular has also been a tremendous boon for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who deserve the same opportunities and adjusted benefit levels as were afforded to veterans of previous generations.
But with the entry of millions of new veterans into the ranks of those now utilizing their earned education benefits, the need for various adjustments and fixes to the program have come to light over the years. Given that Congress and the American people agree that all veterans deserve a fair opportunity to be able to utilize their benefits without undue hardship, this body has generally been amenable to quickly addressing these various issues as they have come up. H.R. 357 would fix another one of these benefit access and utilization issues by allowing veterans to attend public colleges and universities at their respective in-state rates and, thereby, actually be able to afford to go to school and live comfortably using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Because of the nature of military service, service members are required to move around according to the needs of their service. Typically that means they are forced to settle down and reside for years in communities outside of their original state of residence. Service members who are stationed at a particular base or post may live in that state for years, buy a home in that state, shop and pay local taxes to that state, raise a family in that state, and generally become part of the community in that locale. However, that service member is technically still not considered a resident of that state. So if he or she retires or ends his or her term of service in that state and wants to stay local and go back to school as a new veteran in the place where he or she has already functionally settled, that service member would nevertheless be considered a non-resident as a new veteran there and would be forced to pay the often-exorbitant out-of-state tuition rates for his or her education there.
Veterans who wind up living in an area outside of their home states through no fault or choice of their own because of the obligations associated with serving their country in uniform should not be denied the opportunity to use their deserved and earned education benefits to cover the full cost of their education in an area where they have already become functional – but not technical – residents simply because of their military service. This bill would remedy that gap in tuition and residency fairness and ensure that all veterans can take advantage of the promise of the Post-9/11 GI Bill without undue hardship.

H.R. 562
IAVA supports H.R. 562, which would extend the Veterans Retraining and Assistance Program for an additional three months. This program continues to provide need practical and vocational  training to tens of thousands of veterans who are not eligible for any other VA education benefit program. In today’s employment climate, this type of support for struggling veterans constitutes a worthwhile investment.

H.R. 631
IAVA supports H.R. 631, which would enhance, expand, and standardize the content of the Transition Assistance Program for service members who are preparing to reintegrate into the civilian world, go back to school using their VA education benefits, and/or enter the civilian job market, constitutes a positive step in the right direction toward equipping troops with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful as new veterans.
We cannot simply turn new veterans loose into the civilian world and expect them to be successful, just as we would not release them as new troops onto a battlefield without proper acculturation and training. A strong, comprehensive, substantive, and consistent Transition Assistance Program is vital to ensuring service members’ successful transition back into civilian life, and to ensuring the security and stability of their families.
We need to remember that many of these men and women go into the military right out of high school, shortly after college, or early in their professional lives, and although they have shouldered great responsibilities and successfully advanced in their careers within the military system during their period of service, the requirements, expectations, and unspoken rules of the civilian employment landscape can be quite different.

H.R. 844
IAVA supports H.R. 844, which would extend the eligibility period for vocational rehabilitation programs. Those who have sacrificed their ability to work in service to our nation deserve all the tools and resources we are capable of providing in order to help rehabilitate and equip them for future employment opportunities.

H.R. 1305
IAVA supports H.R. 1305, which clarifies eligibility for services under the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. Ensuring that all veterans who quality for this program receive these benefits is critical to helping remedy the veterans homelessness epidemic and to helping these veterans become self-sustaining.

H.R. 1316
IAVA supports H.R. 1316, which would clearly delineate certain duties and responsibilities of Directors and Assistant Directors of Veterans’ Employment and Training. Prudent supervision and oversight is important to ensuring accountability, and Congress is right to help ensure that the departments and agencies it oversees have sufficiently explicit standards and expectations promulgated.

H.R. 1402
IAVA supports H.R. 1402, which would extend VA support for disabled veterans’ participation in the Paralympics. The promotion of therapeutic and rehabilitative initiatives for veterans has always been a priority of the VA, and competitive programs such a the Paralympics that foster both recovery and national pride are worthy of our support.

DRAFT BILL 1
IAVA would support Draft Bill 1, which would improve and increase the availability of on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs for veterans. This bill represents an important acknowledgement of the enormous benefits that can come from practical learning and training experiences. Sometimes, and in some fields, there is simply no better way to learn a job or trade than to actually dive in and get hands-on experience in that field. And in today’s highly competitive job market, getting an initial foot in the door and being able to effectively network can make the difference between finding a job and spending months or years more searching. We should encourage veterans entering the civilian job market to develop and hone these types of practical skills to help them compete with their civilian job-seeking counterparts who may have more experience on the civilian side of their respective industries and fields.
This bill not only expands opportunities for veterans to do just that, but it also smartly focuses on requiring the VA to widely advertise the availability of such programs. After all, the VA can have the best benefits and programs the world, but if no one knows about them and knows how to take advantage of them, then our investment in them and the return on that investment is significantly diminished.

DRAFT BILL 2
IAVA would support Draft Bill 2, which would extend the availability of work-study allowances for certain veterans receiving educational benefits from the VA. For those veterans pursuing higher education who need additional assistance to help finance the cost of their education and living expenses while in school, work-study programs provide a relevant and positive way to earn income while supporting the ongoing work of eligible work-study partners.

We again appreciate the opportunity to offer our views on these bills, and we look forward to continuing to work with each of you, your staff, and the Committee to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Thank you for your time and attention.

Bio of Alexander Nicholson
Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Alexander Nicholson serves as the Legislative Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). As one of IAVA’s top advocates on Capitol Hill, Mr. Nicholson helps shape IAVA’s legislative strategies and priorities throughout the year. He is responsible for developing relationships, assisting in advocacy efforts, and implementing IAVA’s Policy Agenda. Prior to joining IAVA, Mr. Nicholson founded and led the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Servicemembers United for the preceding seven years.
Mr. Nicholson holds a Bachelors degree in international affairs from the University of South Carolina, a Masters degree in public administration from the University of North Georgia, and is currently finishing the dissertation on his Ph.D. in political science from the University of South Carolina.

Statement on Receipt of Federal Grant or Contract Funds

Neither Mr. Nicholson nor the organization he represents, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has received federal grant or contract funds during the current or two previous fiscal years.