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Witness Testimony of Mr. Ronald F. Chamrin, American Legion, Assistant Director of the Economic Commission

Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present The American Legion’s view on the several pieces of legislation being considered by the Subcommittee today. The American Legion commends the Subcommittee for holding a hearing to discuss these very important and timely issues. 

H.R. 1750, A bill to amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to extend from 90 days to one year after release of a member of the Armed Forces from active duty during which the member is protected from mortgage foreclosure.

The American Legion supports this legislation.  This legislation would greatly assist those veterans that were deployed to a combat zone and had little time to transition from active duty to the civilian sector.  Members of the reserve components would be the largest benefactors of an extension from 90 days to 1 year.  Enactment of this legislation will allow the veteran an extended period of time to correct all their finances and assist them in the transition process.

H.R. 1824, A bill to amend title 38, United States Code (U.S.C.), to expand the scope of programs of education for which accelerated payments of educational assistance under the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) may be used.

Section 1

This bill would enable accelerated payments to be used for courses that would lead to employment as an operator of a commercial motor vehicle.

The American Legion supports this provision however, we support granting veterans the option to request an accelerated payment of all monthly educational benefits upon meeting the criteria for eligibility for Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) financial payments.  The selection of courses veterans undergo remains exclusively the decision of the individual veteran, and all earned veterans’ education benefits should be made available to veterans in support of their endeavors.  Accelerated education payments allow veterans to achieve education goals in the manner that they decide.  Binding the time frame of an education payout may restrict educational options for some veterans.

In addition to the traditional institutions for higher learning, MGIB benefits can be used for training at Non-College-Degree Institutions, On-the-Job or Apprenticeship Training, Independent, and Distance or Internet training.  MGIB also allows the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reimburse veterans for the fees charged for national tests for admission to institutions of higher learning and national tests providing an opportunity for course credit at institutions of higher learning. Examples of tests covered are SAT, GRE, CLEP, GMAT, LSAT, etc. MGIB for veterans, and not those eligible under Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA), is available for Flight Training and Correspondence Training.   

The significance of expanding the scope of accelerated education payments is that the preceding categories are eligible for MGIB payments, yet excluded from accelerated education payments.  The American Legion recommends that all MGIB-approved courses, including the On-The-Job training (OJT) and Apprenticeship courses, become eligible for accelerated education payments. 

The American Legion supports the expansion of Public Law 107-103 to include but not limited to:

  1. Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA, or Chapter 35) 
  2. Post-Vietnam Era Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program (VEAP, or Chapter 32)
  3. Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP, or Chapter 1607)

Section 2

The exclusion of Benefit Payments under the MGIB from income for eligibility determinations for Federal education loans would be implemented if this bill were enacted into law. 

The American Legion supports this provision.  Enactment of this legislation will increase the total amount of federal student aid a veteran may receive while concurrently receiving MGIB benefits.   This will in effect raise the overall potential education benefits.

H.R. 1598, Servicemembers Credit Protection Act

Section 2

TITLE VIII NOTICE OF DEPLOYMENT

  • Section 801. Notice of Consumer Reporting Agencies
    This section would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to notify the deployment of the servicemember within 30 days after the deployment and within 30 days after the end of the deployment to each consumer-reporting agency that complies and maintains files on consumers on a nationwide basis.  Furthermore, the Secretary will ensure compliance in the timeliness of reporting such required information to the consumer reporting agencies.

The American Legion supports this provision.  Efforts to assist the servicemember and protecting their credit reporting will allow the servicemember to focus on their mission and provide a climate that is favorable to the servicemember.  Mobilizing Reservists and National Guard members have enormous responsibilities for their mission, their fellow troops, their families and themselves. 

Many servicemembers and veterans are unaware of benefits and protections that are afforded to them.  Additionally, the veteran must perform certain steps and procedures to receive their maximum benefit and protection afforded by law.  Filing, following up and responses to matters while in a combat zone is extremely difficult.  Efforts to assist veterans in the transition from civilian life to active duty and back again to civilian life will greatly benefit a veteran. 

  • Section 802.  Increase in Penalties for Certain Violations Involving Servicemembers Deployed to an Overseas Combat Zone

The American Legion has no official position on this provision.

Section 3

NOTIFICATION IN CONSUMER FILES OF SERVICEMEMBERS

  • Section 605C Combat Zone duty alert
    Each consumer agency that receives a report that a servicemember is deployed in a combat zone will include a combat zone duty alert in the file, provide that alert along with a credit score, and exclude the consumer from any list of consumers prepared by the consumer reporting agency and provided to any third party.  Furthermore, a combat zone duty alert will require a summary of the rights of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the duties of creditors and other persons to be delivered to the consumer.  If a person or another consumer files adverse information to a consumer reporting agency, and the individual is in a combat zone, the reporting agency shall notify the adverse reporter of the combat zone duty alert.

The American Legion supports this provision.  This measure aims to protect the credit of servicemembers deployed to an overseas combat zone by amending The Fair Credit Reporting ActIdentity theft is an ever-increasing reality that can damage ones credit unnecessarily.   Servicemembers who are fighting overseas usually do not have the time or resources to track all of their finances and could therefore be victimized more easily by identity theft.  Payments on mortgages, cars, utilities, credit cards, etc. may also be hard for a servicemember to keep track of while fighting overseas.

H.R. 1315, a bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to provide specially adaptive housing assistance to certain disabled members of the Armed Forces residing temporarily in housing owned by a family member.

This bill seeks to amend title 38, U.S.C., section 2102 A, by adding a section that would give the Secretary of VA the authority to provide specially adaptive housing assistance to members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty who are suffering from a disability described in subsection (a)(2) or (b)(2) of section 2101 if the disability is a result of injury incurred or disease contracted in or aggravated in the line of duty while serving on active duty. 

The American Legion supports the intent, but strongly objects to the restrictive language “in the line of duty.”  This would be inconsistent with the current VA policy for awarding of a service-connected disability rating for an injury or medical condition incurred or aggravated while on active duty.  The American Legion strongly objects to denying veterans severely disabled due to injuries sustained while in “off-duty” status. 

In the Kobar Towers disaster, the only people “on-duty” were those servicemembers on the barrack’s duty roster as “CQ” (in charge of quarters).  Those asleep were “off-duty,” but were injured just the same.

Active-duty servicemembers in transit to and from their duty station would also be excluded from this benefit if severely injured.    

H.R. 1240, a bill to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a scholarship program for students seeking a degree or certificate in the areas of visual impairment and orientation and mobility.

The American Legion supports this legislation.  Servicemembers are returning from the battlefield with vision loss, amputations and Traumatic Brain Injury.  These veterans are young and have their whole lives ahead of them.  This bill will help to ensure, that in future years, these veterans will have the care and improved quality of life that we as a nation should gladly give.

H.R. 675, Disabled Veterans Adaptive Housing Improvement Act

The Disabled Veterans Adaptive Housing Improvement Act seeks to increase the amount of assistance available to disabled veterans for specially adapted housing and to provide for annual increases in the amount to reflect the increase in cost of residential home construction.

The Specially Adapted Housing Grant is available for disabled veterans who are entitled to a wheelchair accessible home especially adapted for their needs.  These veterans are service connected for total and permanent disabilities that include: loss or loss of use of both lower extremities; blindness in both eyes and loss or loss of use of one lower extremity; loss or loss of use of one extremity and residuals of organic disease or injury; and loss or loss of use of both upper extremities at or above the elbow. Many of the injured service members may temporarily reside for extended periods of time with family members providing assistance during rehabilitation after combat-related injuries that result in permanent and total service-connected disabilities.

The American Legion supports the provisions of this bill and strongly recommends that the current maximum for this program be increased to reflect the increase in the residential cost of construction index.  Currently, the program authorized a maximum amount of $50,000 for this grant—which can be used up to three times.  A temporary grant of $14,000 for veterans residing temporarily in a home owned by a family member is also available.  The cost of construction material and labor will increase and the grants should be adjusted regularly to reflect the increase.

H.R. 513, National Heroes Credit Protection Act

This bill would create a protection of Credit Ratings of Persons Activated for Military Service and provide a protection of negative reporting while they are on active duty.  A negative report of nonpayment or late payment will have a notation that the account is delinquent or paid slowly due to military service.  Furthermore, a future potential creditor shall disregard any negative information so noted in the credit report that is due to military service. 

The American Legion supports this provision.  Supporting the troops includes ensuring that they are solely focused on their mission at hand while on active duty.  The majority of National Guard and Reserve troops that are called to active duty are deployed to a combat zone such as Iraq or Afghanistan and have little or no opportunity to review their finances, credit scores, and other matters while deployed.  Additionally, many young servicemembers are unaware of many best financial practices, protections, and benefits afforded to them.  Enactment of this legislation will be beneficial to servicemembers and veterans. 

H.R. 2259, a bill to ensure that members of the National Guard and Reserves are able to fully participate in the benefits delivery at discharge program is extremely important to ensure the financial, psychological, and physical well being of our nations heroes.  We do note the absence of any mention of the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (DOL-VETS) and feel that it is an integral member of the transition process.  This legislation would require the Secretaries of the VA and Department of Defense (DOD) to jointly submit to Congress a plan to maximize access to the benefits delivery at discharge.

The American Legion supports this bill. 

The American Legion strongly supports the Transition Assistance Program and Disabled Transition Assistance Program.  Additionally, The American Legion supports that DOD require all separating, active-duty servicemembers, including those from Reserve and National Guard units, be given an opportunity to participate in Transition Assistance Program and Disabled Transition Assistance Program training not more than 180 days prior to their separation or retirement from the armed forces.

H.R. 2475, Veteran Home Equity Conversion Mortgage Act of 2007.

A bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to guarantee home equity conversion mortgages for elderly veteran homeowners. 

The American Legion has no official position on this bill.

H.R. 1632, Improving Veterans’ Reemployment Act of 2007

A bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to improve the annual report required on veterans’ reemployment rights by requiring a report by the Labor Secretary of the number of cases reviewed by the Department of Labor, cases referred to the Attorney General, and complaints filed by the Attorney General.  It also requires a report of the number of cases reviewed by the Secretary of Defense under the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve of the Department of Defense (ESGR).  Of all these reports, the number of cases that are disability-related must also be filed.

The American Legion supports these provisions.  The American Legion also supports the strongest veterans’ preference laws possible at all levels of government.  We believe that the evidence compiled in this report will show the current state of enforcing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and Veterans’ Preference laws to the nation’s veterans. 

The American Legion is deeply concerned with the protection of the veteran and the prevention of illegal and egregious hiring practices. Currently, veterans are filing claims after the non-compliance employment event occurred and therefore may become financially disadvantaged.  Concurrent measures and continuous oversight must be emplaced to protect veterans from unfair hiring practices, not just reactionary investigations.

The following paragraphs are the perceived steps taken by the Federal government to protect veterans’ employment and it demonstrates reactionary measures to assist veterans that may take months to resolve.  Many veterans give up or do not file complaints because they must seek employment elsewhere or face serious financial difficulties.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) administers entitlement to veterans’ preference in employment.  The Department of Labor, through the Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS), provides assistance to all persons having claims under USERRA. The Department of Labor is the enforcement authority for USERRA, and it processes all formal complaints of violations of the law. The veteran may then request that the Department of Justice litigate on their behalf but only after a certain period has passed. 

The following excerpt is from the Department of Justice website:

“If VETS is unsuccessful in resolving the complaint, the claimant may request that VETS refer the complaint to Office of Special Counsel (OSC). If the Special Counsel believes there is merit to the complaint, OSC will initiate an action before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and appear on behalf of the claimant.

“The DOJ is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the USERRA against state and local government employers and private employers. If the Department of Justice takes your case, it will serve as your attorney if you work for a private employer or a local government. If you work for a state government, the Department of Justice may bring a lawsuit in the name of the United States.”

The Department of Justice website continues to state:

 “USERRA authorizes the Department of Justice Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to investigate alleged violations of the act by Federal Executive Agencies, and to prosecute meritorious claims before the Merit Systems Protection Board on behalf of the aggrieved person.  Under the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act of 1998 (VEOA), in order to seek corrective action, a preference eligible [veteran] is to file a written complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS), within 60 days of the alleged violation.  If the Secretary is unable to resolve a complaint within 60 days, the Secretary is to provide notification of an unsuccessful effort to resolve the complaint to the complainant.” (Department of Justice, www.usdoj.gov)

The American Legion reiterates our position that protection of veterans’ employment rights should be concurrent and continuous oversight must be emplaced to protect veterans from unfair hiring practices, not just reactionary investigations and lawsuits.  We further state that the veteran must be protected at the onset of the hiring process, especially because corrective actions to remedy the veteran’s plight is not guaranteed. 

Finally, we recommend to this Subcommittee that the Department of Justice provide a detailed description of their veterans’ employment activities.

H.R. 112, G.I. Advanced Education in Science and Technology Act

A bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to provide for the payment of stipends to veterans who pursue doctoral degrees in science and technology.

The American Legion supports this provision, however, we feel that a monthly tax-free subsistence allowance indexed for inflation must be part of all educational assistance packages.

The American Legion agrees with the intent of H.R. 112 in that it allows for members of the armed services and veterans to receive enhanced educational benefits more in line with today's needs.  While this legislation is aimed towards the active duty force (MGIB Chapter 30), The American Legion supports legislation that will allow Reservists to earn credits for education while mobilized, just as active-duty troops do, and then use them after they leave the military service.

In addition to the positive measures that the bill encompasses, The American Legion feels that all veterans be treated equally regardless of their Reserve/National Guard status in such that an individual who was called to duty and served honorably should not have to remain in the selected reserve to use their earned benefits.  We support a Total Force GI Bill and major enhancements to the current MGIB that would entail, amongst other items, that all Reservists and National Guard members are able to use their MGIB benefits for up to ten years after separation regardless of disability status and if their enlistment contract expires.

H.R. 2579, A bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to authorize the use of funds in the VA readjustment benefits account and funds appropriated for such purpose to provide funding for State Approving Agencies (SAA). 

The American Legion has no official position on the mechanism of funding State Approving Agencies.  However, The American Legion fully supports reauthorization of SAA funding.

Section 301 of Public Law 107-330 created increases in the aggregate annual amount available for state approving agencies for administrative expenses from FY 2003- FY 2007 to the current funding level of $19 million.    The American Legion believes this is totally inadequate, especially for a nation at war, and strongly recommends keeping SAA funding at $19 million in FY 2008 to assure current staffing and activities.

H.R. 1370, a bill to amend title 38, U.S.C., to establish in the Department of Veterans Affairs an Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events.

The American Legion fully supports this legislation.  Returning servicemembers, particularly those who incur service-related disabilities, are already benefiting from participating in sporting activities as they readjust to civilian life.  This can be most readily seen in the area of adaptive sports therapy for the severely wounded.  Whether it has been kayaking, horse riding or adaptive cycling or skiing, sports programs are making an immeasurably positive impact in how they improve the quality of life for returning servicemembers and veterans.

CONCLUSION

Historically, The American Legion has encouraged the development of essential benefits to help attract and retain servicemembers into the Armed Services, as well as to assist them in making the best possible transition back to the civilian community.  The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the “GI Bill of Rights” is a historic piece of legislation, authored by Harry W. Colmery, Past National Commander of The American Legion, that enabled millions of veterans to purchase their first homes, attend college, obtain vocational training, and start private businesses. 

The legislation discussed today aims to better serve veterans and ultimately assists them in financial stability.  The American Legion commends the Subcommittee for addressing these important issues. 

The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to present this statement for the record.