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Witness Testimony of Mr. Steve L. Gonzalez, Assistant Director, National Economic Commission, The American Legion

Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Commander Koutz and the 2.4 million members of The American Legion, I 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.

In the last Congress alone, The American Legion was pleased to support and advocate for the passage of legislation out of this Committee that included the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, the Veteran Skills to Jobs Act, and the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act. These bills, and others passed into law during the 112th Congress, show the commitment and determination of members of this Committee to improving the lives of those who have served our country.

As you know, our servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are met with daunting challenges at home. These soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are greeted by a soft economy that has resulted in an alarmingly high unemployment rate among our highly skilled veteran community. What our veterans need are jobs, business opportunities or education pathways that can help support a successful transition from military service to prosperous civilian careers.

As the largest organization of wartime veterans, the Legion’s voice is representative of more than 4 million veterans and patriotic Americans. Our positions are guided by nearly 100 years of consistent advocacy, and resolutions that originate at the grassroots level of the organization – the local American Legion posts and veterans in every congressional district of America. The Headquarters staff of the Legion works daily on behalf of veterans, military personnel and our communities through roughly 20 national programs, and hundreds of outreach programs led by our posts across the country.

We appreciate the opportunity to present The American Legion’s views regarding this legislation, and believe we are uniquely qualified to participate in this discussion.

H.R.357: GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013

Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), for purposes of the educational assistance programs administered by the Secretary, to disapprove courses of education provided by public institutions of higher education that do not charge tuition and fees for veterans at the same rate that is charged for in-state residents, regardless of the veteran's state of residence.

The American Legion is synonymous with veteran’s education, being instrumental in the first and most recent GI Bill's passage and helping the modern-day veteran navigate the confusing world of education benefits. The main reason for the Post 9/11 GI Bill was that VA education benefits were no longer covering fast-rising tuition costs. Working with Congress, we stressed the need for a "21st century GI Bill" that would provide benefits worthy of our veterans and offer the same opportunities afforded to those who fought in World War II.

However, over the last couple of years, we have heard from countless veterans who, because of the nature of military service, often have a difficult time establishing residency for purposes of obtaining in-state tuition rates. Under current rules 40,000 student-veterans have to pay the difference between in-state tuition, which is covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and out-of-state tuition if they are attending school as a nonresident. Because of this, many of our student-veterans are unable to use their GI Bill benefits at an institution of higher education of their choice or are required to pay thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses in nonresidential tuition rates. Furthermore, public colleges and universities have significantly raised the costs of out-of-state tuition to offset decreasing revenues due to state budget cuts. Circumstances such as these pose significant challenges to using this important benefit.

Therefore, The American Legion has led a state-by-state initiative to introduce, advocate for and support state legislation that would make all student-veterans eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, regardless of their residency status.

We were also pleased to see Chairman Miller and Ranking Member Michaud cooperate to introduce this bipartisan legislation, H.R. 357, which would require public colleges and universities to give veterans in-state tuition rates even though they may not be residents. The requirement would apply to state schools which have programs which are eligible for the GI Bill.
 
Veterans shouldn’t have to go into deep debt for their education just because their permanent residence is in another state or assume tremendous financial burdens due to the recent change in law which often capped GI Bill benefits far short of high out-of-state rates. Therefore, this legislation is absolutely essential to thousands of veterans who were promised this funding for their college education when the Post-9/11 GI Bill was originally passed and is vital to giving veterans an equal opportunity to afford the school of their choice.
The American Legion supports this bill.

H.R.562: VRAP Extension Act of 2013
Amends the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 to extend through June 30, 2014, the veterans retraining assistance program (VRAP). Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to submit to Congress an interim report on the retraining assistance provided under such program.

The American Legion has worked with thousands of veterans who need to update their skill sets in order to be competitive in today’s workforce, which is why we actively supported passage of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. As part of the VOW Act, VRAP provides up to 12 months of education benefits to unemployed veterans between the ages of 35-60, a group comprising nearly two thirds of all unemployed veterans. As the law currently stands, VRAP is scheduled to expire March 31, 2014, and The American Legion supports this extension which will allow veterans using VRAP to continue to receive funding through what is considered the traditional spring semester of 2014 at the institution where they are enrolled, making it possible for participants to complete training while receiving VRAP benefits. The American Legion works closely with many of these program participants and can testify to the need for them to be able to complete the programs they started through this new initiative.  As such, The American Legion supports extending this deadline to ensure that participating veterans can use their full year of benefits.

The bill would also require an interim report to Congress to measure VRAP’s success in helping unemployed veterans find jobs. Understanding the program’s effectiveness would give Congress and stakeholders monitoring this program, like the Legion, the information needed to decide whether extending VRAP makes sense for our veterans as well as American taxpayers.
The American Legion supports this bill.
H.R. 631: Servicemembers’ Choice in Transition Act of 2013

Amends provisions concerning the Transition Assistance Program of the Department of Defense (employment and job training assistance and related services for members of the Armed Forces being separated from active duty, and for their spouses) to require such Program to consist of at least five days of instruction as follows: (1) at least one day of service-specific pre-separation training; (2) up to one day each for instruction in preparation for employment, preparation for education or career or technical training, preparation for entrepreneurship, or other options determined by the Secretary of the military department concerned; (3) at least two days of in-depth instruction of the participant's choice in any of the subjects described under (2), above; and (4) up to one day in benefits provided under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) and in other subjects determined by the Secretary concerned.

The American Legion works with transitioning veterans through a variety of programs, including job fairs and resume writing workshops. Over the past several years, The American Legion has attended and audited many of the Transition Assistance Programs (TAP) that are administered nationwide. Recognizing the importance TAP plays in the lives of separating service member and their families, The American Legion heartily supported the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 which, in relevant part, makes TAP mandatory for most service members transitioning to civilian status, upgrades career counseling options, and job hunting skills, as well as ensures the program is tailored to individuals and the 21st Century job market.

Transition Goals Plans Success, known simply as Transition GPS, replaces the 20-year-old Transition Assistance Program and takes military members through a week-long class, compared to the original TAP’s mandatory two to four hours of separation counseling. In the course of five days, service members develop an individual transition plan that maps out financial planning and a budget to follow the first 12 months after separating from the military. It also covers how to write a resume and how to interview for a job, along with exploring how military skills can be carried over into the civilian work force. In addition to the DOL workshop, a Veterans Affairs representative goes over benefits.

The new curriculum also includes optional two-day capstone courses which cover an educational track, a technical and skills training track and entrepreneurship track, and allows the separating service members to hone in on the field they intend to pursue after service. However, these capstone courses are not recognized by DOD as being a part of the core curriculum.

The American Legion has been hosting veterans Small Business Training programs for almost 10 years, and understands the critical need for transitioning service members to have a variety of post-military choices that best suit their individual employment goals and particular family needs. Therefore, we share the concerns of this Subcommittee, that mandatory training must include those alternative paths, and that forcing every service member to sit through 3 days of job-hunting skills at the expense of training that tailored to their post-discharge intentions is a poor use of resources. A program of providing a core instruction summarizing the highlights of the detailed tracks, followed by allowing the servicemember to choose a track as part of the mandatory coursework, is a superior approach to meeting the needs of TAP participants. H.R. 631 clarifies that the intent of the TAP redesign was to offer this kind of transitional training, and we are pleased to support it.
The American Legion supports this bill.
H.R. 844: VetSuccess Enhancement Act

To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the eligibility period for veterans to enroll in certain vocational rehabilitation programs.
 
The number of service members, National Guard, and reservists who separate from active duty with service-connected disabilities has risen as a result of the engagement of the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program provides comprehensive services and assistance to enable veterans with service-connected disabilities and employment handicaps to achieve maximum independence in daily living, to become employable, and to obtain and maintain suitable employment.

However, the basic period of eligibility for VR&E benefits is limited to 12 years from the date of separation from the military or the date the veteran was first notified by VA of a service-connected disability rating. Based on American Legion case studies, several years ago The American Legion passed a resolution calling on VA to lift the delimiting date for participation in the program. We have found that many service members and veterans do not understand their eligibility to VR&E services and the benefits of the program until later in life when they become so disabled that their disabilities create an employment barrier. Because this legislation would extend the delimiting date by five years, we can support it as a step in the right direction, but The American Legion would prefer to see the delimiting date eliminated altogether.  
   
The American Legion supports this bill.

H.R. 1305

To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide clarification regarding eligibility for services under the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program

The American Legion has taken a leadership role within local communities by volunteering, fundraising, and advocating for programs and funding for homeless veterans, as well as hosting workshops and roundtables in Washington, D.C. and around the country. In doing so, we've seen and heard from homeless veterans and their families that obtaining meaningful employment is absolutely key to their transition back into mainstream society.

Currently, homeless veterans are eligible for job training and placement services under the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP), the only nationwide program focused on assisting homeless veterans to reintegrate into the workforce. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Labor has determined that some homeless veterans are not eligible to participate in this existing program. Specifically, the Department of Labor has concluded veterans who are participating in another program, known as the HUD-VASH voucher program, are not considered truly “homeless”, and are therefore ineligible for the very programs that will help them re-enter the workforce and get them back on their feet.

While it’s true that some veterans in the HUD-VASH Program do not actively seek employment due to serious mental illness, substance use disorders, physical disabilities or co-occurring disorders, many others are in need of the job placement and retention services provided by HVRP. Access to HVRP while being housed with a HUD-VASH voucher will allow many formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, or transitioning veterans to leverage the available federal resources that will strengthen their financial stability and independent living. The HUD-VASH Program does not alleviate a veteran's need for the employment support provided by HVRP.

Finally, in our view HVRP is a highly successful grant program and needs to be fully funded at $50 million. Currently, HVRP is funded at $38.26 million.  
The American Legion supports this bill.

H.R. 1316

To amend title 38, United States Code, to specify the responsibilities of the Directors and Assistant Directors of Veterans’ Employment and Training.

The Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) is an independent agency within the Department of Labor (DOL) created specifically to assist veterans in making the transition from military to civilian life, train for and find good jobs, and to protect the employment and reemployment rights of veterans, Reservists and National Guard Members. VETS maintains a network of State Directors and Assistant Directors of Veterans' Employment and Training Service (DVETs/ADVETs).

The American Legion has long supported Labor’s VETS program. We have worked closely with the Department of Labor and the program since it was introduced, we are a member of the Department’s Veterans Advisory Committee, and Legionnaires have worked at all levels of the organization. VETS leadership actively consults with the Legion to ensure their work is in keeping with Legion views and we believe strongly in the agency’s expertise and experience to manage the program effectively.

We have reviewed the current position descriptions for the DVETs and note the almost total overlap between them and the proposed duties outlined in the bill.

For these reasons, The American Legion does not see the need at this point in specifying in the code the responsibilities for these positions. Further, we believe VETS, which has responsibly managed these positions heretofore, should retain the authority and flexibility to define the positions.
The American Legion is unable to support this bill at this time.  
H.R. 1402

To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the authorization of appropriations for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay a monthly assistance allowance to disabled veterans training or competing for the Paralympic Team and the authorization of appropriations for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide assistance to United States Paralympics, Inc.

Public Law 110-389 (2008) authorized VA to award grants to the U.S. Olympic Committee to plan, manage and implement an adaptive sports program for disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces. In addition, it authorized a monthly subsistence allowance to qualifying disabled veterans in training or competing for the Paralympics to help them more easily take part in competitive sports. Further, both were authorized during fiscal years 2010 through 2013. H.R. 1402 would extend these authorizations through 2018.

Since its foundation in 1919, The American Legion has identified as its most important issue the rehabilitation and reintegration of the disabled veteran. We have been working intimately with the Paralympic program since 2005 and are also strong believers in the physical and psychological benefits that come from involvement in sports and recreation. Thus, we support such programs of the U. S. Olympic Committee that facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of our disabled veterans and service members. We know that sports and physical activity can have a transformative effect on those with a physical disability and the continued provision of funds will help to expand and provide greater access to sports programs for injured veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces.
The American Legion supports this bill.
Draft bill: Improving Job Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2013

To improve and increase the availability of on-job training and apprenticeship programs carried out by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

On-the-job training is still the predominant form of job training in the United States, particularly for non-managerial employees and numerous studies indicate that it is the most effective form of job training.

The VA’s On-the-Job & Apprenticeship Training Program offers veterans    or currently serving guard or reserve an alternative way to use their GI Bill education and training benefits if they would rather not utilize them through higher education. Unfortunately, The American Legion has found that most veterans are not aware they can use their GI Bill benefits for on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs with many businesses.

This draft legislation would mandate VA promote this program to veterans in national media outlets as highly efficient and effective ways of obtaining jobs, as The American Legion has been promoting this program locally through our posts. It would also lower the costs to companies who participate in the program making it more attractive for them to participate.

The American Legion works closely with the State Approving Agencies (SAAs) to ensure they correctly administer on-the-job and apprenticeship programs and understand both their value and importance. They have historically also been at the forefront of promoting and marketing these programs through their outreach efforts, so we believe VA should partner with SAAs in any public relations campaign they undertake and we furthermore recommend that VA restore outreach funding for SAAs so they can more effectively promote these and other GI Bill educational programs.  
The American Legion supports this bill.
Draft bill

To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the authority to provide work-study allowance for certain activities by individuals receiving educational assistance by Secretary of Veterans Affairs

This draft bill is an extension of the Department of Veteran Affairs authority to offer certain work-study allowances for student-veterans due to expire mid-year. The American Legion has long supported the Department of Veteran Affairs work-study program and supports this initiative to maintain as many of these work-study opportunities as possible.

This program provides a valuable benefit to student-veterans and that benefit is often multiplied many times over when, for example, they are allowed to perform outreach services to service members and veterans furnished under the supervision of a State approving agency employee. This is just one instance of the important work that is accomplished by these student-veterans.
The American Legion supports this bill.
As always, The American Legion thanks this Subcommittee for the opportunity to explain the position of the over 2.4 million veteran members of this organization.  

For additional information regarding this testimony, please contact Mr. Jeffrey Steele at The American Legion’s Legislative Division, 202-263-2987 or jsteele@legion.org.