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Preserve Our Legacy

The threats to veterans’ benefits and care are real. During sequestration, the military cut support services for military families and Pentagon leaders are being forced to consider additional cuts. Through the Bipartisan Budget Act, Congress cut retirement benefits for those currently serving. While Congress ultimately restored these benefits, it was a clear statement: the promises to protect veterans’ benefits are already wavering.

The benefits and pay for our troops are also under fire. Cutting pay and benefits could have disastrous effects on our nation’s capability to respond to further threats. Over the last 10 years, Congress has finally made military pay and benefits competitive with jobs in the civilian sector. America demands a lot from both service members and their families; they spend months apart for deployments and training, move frequently, and risk their lives. This is a lot to ask anyone and any family. If military pay and benefits start to stagnate and aren’t competitive, it will become difficult for the military to retain its much-needed troops.

Cutting benefits also threatens recruitment. President George Washington once said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive how the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” These guiding words remain sage advice today as the era of war in Iraq and Afghanistan begins to close.

In the coming years it will seem politically expeditious to find “savings” in cuts to veterans’ services and benefits. Congress, the President, and the American people must put in place protections to block any future attempts to erode the system of care for veterans and their families. We don’t know what the future holds for many veterans and their families. Many of the effects of today’s wars are still unknown and some veterans are working to integrate back into their families and communities. They have not yet sought support for injuries that may become more severe with time. The system of care must still be there for veterans when their injuries emerge.

Now is the time when troops and veterans will ask if the country has their backs and if our nation will keep its promises. The answer to both questions must be as absolute as our resolve when we deployed.

5.1: Protect Funding and Services for Troops and Veterans
5.2: Defend Military Pay and Benefits
5.3: Protect Our Wartime Allies
5.4: Secure IAVA Congressional Charter

5.1: Protect Funding and Services for Troops and Veterans

The long-term needs of new veterans are still not fully understood and will only be revealed as research continues and more veterans return home.

Research estimates that one of five new veterans have invisible injuries such as TBI or PTSD. In addition, the military’s use of so-called “burn pits” to destroy waste has already impacted the health of new veterans, but little is understood about the long-term effects of exposure to the pits. With our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan no longer in the headlines, the country must continue investing in the system of care for veterans and their families.

Congress must continue to appropriate funding levels for the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense (DoD) to match the benchmarks set by leaders of the veterans’ community in the 2015 Independent Budget. Congress should also extend advance appropriations to the entire VA. In 2010, following a series of missed budgets, Congress responded to calls from IAVA and our partners throughout the veterans’ community to restore predictability to the VA health care budget by appropriating funds one year in advance. Now is the time to protect all VA programming from the whims of political bickering; the entire VA needs budget stability to continue its transformation efforts.

IAVA Recommendations:
I. 
Ensure that the VA funding levels match the annual Independent Budget blueprint, produced by leading VSOs and endorsed by IAVA.

II. Provide the Secretary of Veteran Affairs increased budget flexibility to allocate funds across budget line items to best meet the demands of veterans using VA health care. 

III. Appropriate funds for the entire VA—not just the health care system—one year in advance.

IV. Provide aggressive oversight to ensure that VA funds are spent efficiently and effectively.

V. Maintain Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for veterans and their families. Any cuts to this benefit are a breach in trust with service members and veterans by Congress.

VI. Invest in and partner with innovative community nonprofits serving the needs of service members, veterans, their families and survivors.

5.2: Defend Military Pay and Benefits

Congress cannot balance the budget on the backs of veterans or their families. Veteran services are not frivolous spending—the programs are deeply important to the health and security of our veterans and their families. Furthermore, since veterans kept their commitment to the country, it’s unfair for the country to not deliver on their commitments to us; yet, deficit hawks and political maneuvering continue to put a target on our backs. In 2011, Congress jeopardized programs to support military families and service members by including those critical programs in the threat of across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration. When sequestration went into effect in 2013, veterans felt the impact. Later, the budget compromise meant to end sequestration—the Budget Control Act—devastated military retirees by cutting cost of living adjustments, cuts that will cost an E-7 retiree more than $3,000 a year.  While some of these cuts have been repealed, many remain and show a readiness to abandon the military community.

The nation is coming off a recession and everyone is tightening their belts, but adjustments to military compensation must consider the holistic impact on the already strained families of veterans and service members. For example, the use of food stamps on military commissaries has been steeply rising since 2008, with $104 million in food stamps being redeemed in 2013;  yet political leaders are considering further cuts to them and discounts provided through commissaries. The Department of Defense (DoD) spent almost $1 billion in 2012 on unemployment benefits, showing the continued need to invest in programs to help transition troops into civilian careers.  No cut is made in a vacuum and our government should carefully assess the costs and benefits of any change they make to military and veteran benefits.

Unless Congress and the President keep military compensation competitive with the civilian job market and active duty morale high, it will be difficult to maintain the strongest all-volunteer force, potentially impacting the country’s ability to respond to threats. Maintaining family and troop morale must be seen as a national security priority.

IAVA Recommendations:
I. 
Permanently and completely repeal the automatic spending cuts (known as sequestration) allowed by the Budget Control Act signed into law in 2011.

II. Repeal the 2013 cut to military retirement that reduces the cost of living adjustment for working age retirees. 

III. Oppose increases in TRICARE fees and cuts to military retirement benefits.

IV. Set and protect the commissary benefit for military families and retirees at the current funding levels to ensure living on military bases is financially feasible.

V. During an enacted sequestration, allow the DoD more budget flexibility by allowing it to use excess funds from one account to support others.

VI. Maintain competitive pay for troops by keeping pace with the civilian sector.

VII. Restore the 100% BAH rate for those military members who are now scheduled to pay 5% of their housing costs out of pocket.

VIII. Forgive DoD bonuses and overpayments made to service members through no fault of their own, repay those who have repaid all or portions of the overpayments, and make whole those who have suffered financial and credit setbacks as a result of these requirements. Share data with the public to ensure that all who have been affected are supported.

IX. Examples of overpayment of benefits can be found throughout federal programs. Create a task force to fully examine the extent of overpayments for military/veteran programs and protocols for recruitment of those overpayments. Enact recommendations to remove hardships from service members, veterans and their families when overpayments are recouped.

5.3: Protect Refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan

Since 2009, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program has aided select Afghan nationals who served as interpreters or translators with the U.S. military, or who were employed by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government in Afghanistan. Each year, these SIVs for qualified Afghan allies (principal applicants) and certain family members (derivatives) are authorized by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In FY 2017, the NDAA only authorized 1,500 additional visas, while the State Department reports a backlog of over 13,000 Afghans currently waiting for approval. As current applications are being processed, it is anticipated that the Afghan SIV program will face a drastic shortfall before Congress can authorize additional visas.

A similar SIV program for Iraqi allies was enacted in 2006, but that program has stopped accepting new applicants as of 2014. While the Iraqi program is still servicing its own backlog of qualified applicants, it is estimated that approximately 58,000 other U.S. affiliated Iraqi allies, including those who worked with American NGOs, media, and other organizations, are currently awaiting acceptance into the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program. These individuals are being considered for P2 refugee visas within the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program, and this population includes interpreters and translators that missed the deadline to apply for the Iraqi SIV program.

The Afghan SIV program and the Iraqi P2 program are vital in securing the safety of men and women who risked their lives working side by side with the United States. Without these visas, these allies and their families are put in danger for their service to our country. Congress and the White House must renew efforts to aid these allies. In addition, Congress must expand its yearly appropriations to ensure that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, receive adequate funding to assist these allies once they reach the United States.

IAVA Recommendations:
I.  
Authorize an adequate number of SIVs necessary to ensure that all Afghans who are eligible receive one.

II. Continue to reauthorize the Afghan SIV program in the NDAA for as long as the U.S. commits military forces in Afghanistan. 

III. Ensure that any executive order on refugees and immigrants retains U.S. aid to qualified Iraqi allies currently in the Iraqi P2 category within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

IV. Extend the Category 5 provision of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program’s Direct Access program, currently only applicable to Iraqis, to the extended family of Afghan SIV applicants who can show duress due to service rather than limiting access to spouses and children under the age of 21.

V. Appropriate adequate funding for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in order to ensure these allies receive aid after obtaining visas and entering the United States.

VI. Allow SIV applicants to apply for housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during their application process so that housing is immediately available upon their arrival, rather than waiting until they receive a social security number.

VII. Support and fund private, nonprofit organizations that support SIV relocation efforts like The List Project and No One Left Behind.

5.4: Secure IAVA Congressional Charter

In the past, Congress has granted Congressional Charters to a to a limited number of Veteran Service Organizations. This official recognition is an important step to preserving the mission and legacy of IAVA. Unfortunately, Congressional leaders have moved away from such recognition.

IAVA Recommendations:
I. Work with Members of Congress to develop and pass legislation granting IAVA a Congressional Charter.