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

Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present The American Legion’s view on pending legislation before the Subcommittee today. 

America needs an historic investment in the educational future of this nation’s veterans.  When The American Legion wrote the first draft of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, it changed the course of American history. A generation of heroes was able to join the middle class, achieve home ownership, earn higher education and live the American dream. More famously known as the GI Bill, it was hailed by many as the greatest piece of legislation ever. Sadly, as the generations passed and memories dimmed, the GI Bill benefits were so drastically reduced that many veterans either declined or were denied even the opportunity to participate in the program. Few veterans today have the luxury of attending school without also holding a job, and many colleges are completely out of reach simply due to financial barriers. 

No longer can we continue to call each piece of education legislation in the 110th Congress a GI Bill.  A true GI Bill encompasses such benefits as housing, employment, job counseling and training, health care, and education for veterans.  These are the true “tools” for seamless transition from warrior back to citizen.  The time to change history is once again upon us. 

H.R. 4883,   A bill 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 service members period of military service.

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 successfully transition from active duty military service 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 would provide veterans an extended period of time to become employed, correct all their finances and assist them in the transition process. 

In the most unfortunate of circumstances, lenders are unwilling to negotiate and assist veterans who are in default status even though these veterans are in a good position to correct the situation.  It is unfair to expect servicemembers to concentrate on fighting a battle overseas and then simultaneously attend to all their personal matters at home.  Moreover, veterans have a positive track record of following through with payments.  During the fourth quarter of 2007, only 2.83 percent of homeowners using the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) Loan Guaranty program were seriously delinquent.  This is much lower when compared to 6 percent for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages, and a whopping 14.44 percent for the subprime mortgages. 

H.R. 3798, National Guard Employment Protection Act

Protecting employment rights of National Guard soldiers who are training to support their missions in the Global War on Terror is the right thing to do.  This bill would improve current law by amending Title 38, United States Code (USC) to protect the reemployment rights of members of the National Guard who were ordered to active duty in support of national or state emergencies. 

PENDING LEGISLATION TO AMEND THE VA LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM:  H.R. 4884, H.R. 4539, H.R. 5664

Since the VA Home Loan program was enacted as part of the original Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill), VA has guaranteed more than 18.2 million home loanstotaling nearly $938billion for veterans to purchase or construct a home, or to refinance another home loan on more favorable terms.  In the last five years (2001-2006), VA has assisted more than 1.4 million veterans in obtaining home loan financing totaling almost $197 billion.  About half of these loans, just over 730,000, were to assist veterans to obtain a lower interest rate on an existing VA guaranteed home loan through VA’s Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan Program

The American Legion supports the elimination of the VA Home Loan funding fee and petition Congress to appropriate funding to sustain the VA Home Loan program when the funding fee is eliminated.  Currently, only service-connected disabled veterans are exempt from this funding fee. However, for all other eligible veterans, the VA funding fee charged to veterans was enacted to defray the costs of the VA guaranteed home loan program.   The fee, currently 2.15 percent on no down payment loans for first-time use, is intended to enable the veteran who obtains a VA home loan to contribute toward the cost of this benefit.  Congress is not required to appropriate funding for this program; however, because veterans must now ‘buy’ into the program, it no longer serves the intent of helping veterans afford a home. 

In some aspects, the funding fee makes the VA Home Loan program less beneficial than a standard, private loan.  Approximately 80 percent of all VA Home Loan participants must pay the current funding fee to VA to defray the cost of appropriating funding for the home loan program. This has had a negative effect on many veterans who choose not to participate in this highly beneficial program. 

The American Legion supports the reinstatement and extension of the adjustable rate mortgage and hybrid adjustable rate mortgage project, not just for the immediate future, but indefinitely.  The adjustable rate mortgage authority would enable VA the flexibility to assist more veterans in obtaining affordable homes.

The American Legion supports allowing spouses of deceased veterans to gain eligibility for the VA Home Loan program.  The current eligibility for a home loan for spouses are: an unremarried spouse of a veteran who died while in service or from a service-connected disability, or are a spouse of a serviceperson missing in action or a prisoner of war.  It is unfair for a veteran’s spouse only to become eligible for the home loan if the veteran dies of a service-connected disability.  Moreover, veterans are more likely than not to be the primary income provider for the household and contribute the majority of payments to mortgages for the family.  Upon death of a veteran, the mortgage payments must continue to be paid and the burden falls on the surviving spouse.  Many times the spouse elects to relocate to a smaller, more economical home that is within their means.  By allowing spouses to gain eligibility, many elderly widows/widowers will be able to enter the VA Loan Program. 

A long overdue remedy to the refinancing laws is needed.  In order to strengthen the Loan Guarantee program, the law should be amended to remove the 10 percent equity requirement in order to refinance a home and to increase the refinancing limit a veteran can obtain to match the maximum loan guarantee amount; currently $417,000.  Under current law, a veteran who wishes to refinance their home is limited to a loan of $144,000. 

Specially adaptive housing (SAH) is and will continue to be an important issue as severely wounded veterans heal and transition out of VA Polytrauma facilities.  Since 1948, SAH assisted over 34,000 veterans totaling $650M.  For FY 2008 as of March 31, 2008, 550 veterans have had grants approved and 1,500 veterans are in some stage of pursuit of grant today.

It is important to note that there are 7,200 veterans are currently being tracked by the VA Loan Guarantee Service that are eligible, but not taking advantage of SAH at this time.  These veterans could become request specially adaptive housing assistance at any time and as the Global War on Terror continues, more veterans will require special adaptations to their homes.   Studies required every six years to update plans and specifications are not the proper solution.  Rather, continuous oversight and constant updates to veterans, Congress, and interested parties would better serve the veteran community. 

Housing Crisis Affecting Veterans

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) report, “Vital Mission, Ending Homelessness Among Veterans” reports that currently, over 930,000 veterans pay more than 50 percent of their income towards housing, be it renting or owning a home.  (476,877 rent/ 453,354 own)  When testifying before your Subcommittee; economists, lenders, realtors, and other experts painted a bleak outlook for the future in terms of veterans defaulting and foreclosing on their homes.  If a veteran loses his or her job, has a financial emergency, or some other factor leading to delinquency, nearly 1 million veterans could be close to losing their homes. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the overall default rate grew by 29 percent, reaching a point at which just over 1 in every 100 mortgages was in default, almost a 28-year high. The foreclosure start rate did reach a 28-year high, rising by 55 percent. (GAO-08-78R Default and Foreclosure Trends (October 2007)).

In comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, the VA Home Loan program is helping veterans maintain their homes through supplemental services.     The VA Loan Guarantee Service reports that in 2007, there were 58,836 reported defaults:

  • Only 16,000 had VA-Veteran assistance through the Supplemental Servicing program provided by the VA.

  • Approximately 8,400 saved loans with assistance with the VA Home Loan program supplemental servicing.

  • Just 8,100 homes foreclosed.

PENDING LEGISLATION TO ESTABLISH A STUDY OF VETERAN TRENDS AND PROGRAMS:  H.R. 3646, H.R. 3889

A joint study to ascertain the needs of employees between Department of Labor’s (DOL) Veterans’ Employment and Training Services (VETS) and VA, as proposed in H.R. 3646, must also have Department of Defense (DOD) involvement to determine what military occupational skills can successfully translate over to the civilian sector.  In the Armed Forces, unique occupations are performed to approved military standards that may meet or exceed the civilian license or certification criteria. Upon separation, many former military personnel, certified as proficient in their military occupational career, are not licensed or certified to perform the comparable job in the civilian workforce, thus hindering chances for immediate civilian employment and delaying career advancement.  This situation creates an artificial barrier to employment upon separation from military service.  

Unemployment, underemployment, difficulty translating military skills to the civilian sector and the state of our economy are proving to be obstacles to employment.  Younger veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) are experiencing employment obstacles at an alarming rate.  A report by the DOL-VETS finds that 11.3 percent of veterans ages 20 to 24 were unemployed in 2007, compared to only 8.1 percent of nonveterans in the same age group. Moreover, a separate report by VA (Employment Histories Report Final Compilation Report, Associates Inc. September 28, 2007) shows a rise in the figure for those who stopped looking for work because they couldn’t find jobs or returned to school from just 10 percent of young veterans in 2000 to 23 percent in 2005.  VA even reports a higher percentage of unemployed veterans, 18 percent of veterans aged 20-24 who sought jobs within one to three years of discharge were unemployed.

A longitudinal study of the vocational rehabilitation program proposed in HR. 3889 has the potential to greatly assist VA’s efforts in rehabilitation and other aspects of benefits and health care.  The requirement to provide annual reports enforces greater oversight of this vital program.  In addition to the requirements set forth by the legislation, The American Legion recommends that the Secretary report on all aspects of employment and housing and other related data of the families of veteran sample source.   

PENDING LEGISLATION TO AMEND VETERANS’ EDUCATION BENEFITS:  H.R. 4889

The American Legion strongly agrees with H.R. 4889, The Guard and Reserves Are Fighting Too Act of 2008, and fully supports the intent of the bill that would move the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) from Chapter 1607, Title 10, USC, to a new chapter under Title 38, USC.  Recodification of REAP benefits would place the administration and oversight authority under VA and the Veterans’ Affairs Committees.  Traditionally seen as a recruitment tool, Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) benefits can also be viewed as a readjustment tool that more closely falls in line with the purview of VA for seamless transition from active-duty to the classroom.

However, The American Legion has concerns regarding the technical language.   If H.R. 4889 were enacted in its current form, the positive veterans’ education provisions contained in the FY 08 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would be removed.  Therefore, The American Legion most strongly recommends making technical corrections to H.R. 4889 to contain the new veterans’ education provisions enacted under Title 10, USC, by the NDAA.  The language would then fully match the legislative intent to transfer of all REAP benefits to Title 38, USC.  

The most notable positive provision in the NDAA in regards to veterans’ education is the portability of benefits of REAP beneficiaries.   The NDAA enacted legislation in Title 10, USC, to allow Reservists to use their Chapter 1607 educational benefits for 10 years after separation from the Reserves and permits Reservists to reclaim previously earned 1607 benefits and use them for 10 years following any subsequent separation, if they rejoin the Armed Forces.

This is important because we must understand that many of the Reservists, who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, have already left the service due to multiple deployments, injuries, family, or retirement.  Reservists should not be penalized because they served in the war, but chose to separate before the war ended.

Additionally, the NDAA authorizes an accelerated payment program; allowing Reservists with three cumulative years of active-duty service to qualify for education benefits at 80 percent of the active-duty rate, and creates a buy-up program for service members eligible for Chapter 1607 benefits.

The American Legion has no official position at this time on H.R. 5684, Veteran Education Improvement Act and H.R. 3681, the Veterans Benefits Awareness Act

The American Legion has no official position on H.R. 3393; Reservist Access to Justice Act, H.R. 3298; 21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act and H.R. 3467; Second Chance for America's Veterans Act.  

CONCLUSION

The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to present its views on programs that will affect veterans, servicemembers and their families. An author once wrote, “A veteran is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a ‘blank check’ made payable to the United States of America for an amount 'up to and including my life.' That is honor, and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it."We ask that this Subcommittee take into consideration the recommendations of The American Legion as your colleagues address these issues.  Many steps should be taken to ensure that those who have put on the uniform and have written a “blank check” to this country (to include the ultimate sacrifice) continue to receive the thanks of a grateful nation.  We also ask the Subcommittee not to forget the sacrifices and contributions made by America’s veterans and their families as the legislation that you deliberate upon will have lasting effects on them. 

The American Legion looks forward to continuing to work with the Subcommittee to assist the nation’s veterans.  Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee, this concludes my testimony.