Statement of Paul Rieckhoff
Chief Executive Officer
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Of America
House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees
May 20, 2015
Chairman Isakson, Chairman Miller, Ranking Members Blumenthal and Brown, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:
On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and our nearly 400,000 members, thank you for the opportunity to share our policy priorities for 2015.
This time last year, I came before you to sound an alarm about the issue of suicide in the veteran community. In response to this call, we worked closely with you to draft, introduce, and finally, pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.
The bipartisan effort to get it done was historic. And it showed America what Congress can achieve when we are united–regardless of party. The road was long–longer than it should have been. But together, we got it done. And we sincerely thank you for your support.
But, the fight is far from over. And the stakes have never been higher. 2015 will be the most important year ever for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The VA Scandal left us betrayed, unemployment is too high, suicides continue, our country often seems to forget that we are still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And here in Washington, we see a Congress divided. And with an election looming, it will only get worse.
But, veterans can be the one thing that unites you. And all Americans. But you need to put politics aside, listen to our community and get to work.
For 2015, IAVA has an extensive list of recommendations that serve as a blueprint for how you, the DoD, VA, the White House, the President, Governors, Mayors and all Americans, can really support IAVA Veterans. Our plan is led by 4 priorities as determined by our members, that we call IAVA’s “BIG 4 for 2015.” We look forward to working with you to pass a Clay Hunt SAV-style comprehensive piece of legislation tackling each of them.
#1. Continue Combatting Suicide
The Clay Hunt SAV Act was only the first step toward addressing the issue of suicide. Now, the VA needs to swiftly implement the SAV Act. And Congress should continue working on next steps for a SAV Act 2.0 focused on access, supply and quality.
#2. Invest In The Success of Women Veterans
It’s time to get focused. Female service members make up the fastest growing segment of the veteran population. They account for 20 percent of IAVA membership, and 35 percent of our leaders. Our Research Department recently completed a survey of almost 2,000 women, and a seven city tour, hosting focus groups with our female veterans nationwide. These events highlighted the huge challenges female veterans face accessing care from the VA. Female vets highlighted multiple occasions where just being recognized as veterans by the VA was a challenge–receiving letters addressed to “Mr.” or having to correct their medical chart, where they were listed as male.
Yet, we still found that our members are active users of VA medical services. Almost 70 percent of our respondents are enrolled in VA healthcare. Yet, our analysis shows that less than half felt that VA employees treat women vets with respect. That shows how far we have to go. While progress has been made, the VA (and the nation at large) is still far behind in recognizing and supporting our women warriors. We must: strengthen public awareness and research about women veterans; improve female-specific care, and improve employment, housing and childcare services
#3. Finally reform the VA and DOD for Today’s Veterans
After the outrageous VA scandal of 2014, the problems we face became abundantly clear to the entire world. Much of the crisis was preventable and predictable–if only leaders had listened to our veterans. But in this moment, now, there is an opportunity to finally reform a broken system. The new VA Secretary (and Secretary of Defense) must be given the tools, resources, authority, and space to succeed—while of course being held accountable. The President must be involved too. Additionally, funding and key structures at VA in particular must be protected from short-sighted cuts and political posturing. This must be the year we all work together to create a veteran-centric system that is tailored to meet our needs for decades to come.
It is no secret challenges still exist. Almost daily, reports surface outlining problems at VA. While most of these incidents did not happen under Secretary McDonald’s watch, he must deal with them aggressively. That’s why, IAVA supported Chairman Miller’s VA Accountability Act, to give the Secretary the authority to remove those bad actors and clean up the VA.
But since Secretary McDonald has been on the job, the VA has improved. The claims backlog has been significantly reduced, homelessness is down and the Veterans Crisis Line remains a critical resource for veterans in need–and a key partner of IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program. But that’s not enough. We must work together to: finally end the VA Backlog; seamlessly transfer care from the Department of Defense to the VA; improve government outreach to veterans, and defend troops against military sexual trauma.
We all knew this would be a long road. And Bob McDonald is the right man for the job. And you must give him the funding and flexibility to finally reform the VA once and for all.
#4. Defend Veteran and Military Education Benefits
The Post-9/11 GI Bill has now sent more than one million veterans to school. Many graduating this week! But predatory actors in the for-profit school sector continue to take advantage of veterans. Congress must finally close loopholes that reward these bad actors for targeting veterans. You must also strengthen regulations to help veterans choose the best educational program for their career goals. And, help them graduate.
Beyond our Big 4 for 2015, you must continue to also support the families of our fallen, focus on unemployment, innovate healthcare, support those exposed to burn pits, support our military families, expand on the success of veterans courts, and end veteran homeless. It’s a long list, but our veterans deserve it. And after over a decade of war, we’ve waited long enough for reinforcements.
But veterans are not a charity, we are an investment. And now is the time get double down on that investment–and stay focused. Just days before Memorial Day, it’s time to stand as one, and get to work.
Members of the Committee, thank you again for the opportunity to share IAVA’s priorities with you here today. We look forward to working with each of you in the critical year ahead.
To view the full clip of the hearing, click here.