Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Legislative Update from Lee F. Kichen, LTC, U.S. Army (Ret.)

The American People Have Spoken - Every four years, in November, Americans go to the polls to choose a President. Presidential elections are the beginning of a peaceful transition of power culminating with the Inauguration in January. Ironically, November is the month that we also celebrate the service of America’s veterans. Since before the birth of the Republic, America’s veterans fought for and secured our freedom to peacefully choose those who govern this great nation. For veterans, active and reserve personnel, military retirees and their families the impending transition is the first in forty years during wartime.

In 1969, at what was in many respects the height of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon succeeded Lyndon B. Johnson as Commander in Chief, the Vietnam War continued for four more years under Nixon without victory. A new administration can learn much from that transition, most importantly, there is no “Peace with Honor” unless victory has been gained on the battlefield. Forty years ago, the enemy was Communism and we successfully confronted that enemy in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Europe, sometimes the wars were hot, sometimes they were cold. Nevertheless, we fought that enemy far from the Homeland.

Today, we are fighting Islamic terrorism and we are taking the battle to them, we effectively defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and are establishing a free government in that country and given the resources and the will we can finish the job in Afghanistan. We must ensure that America is never attacked.

As we look forward to an Obama administration and the 111th Congress it is appropriate for us to look back over the past years of what we have achieved and the work that lies ahead as we continue to serve America’s Warriors past, present and future.

  • Since the Bush Administration took office in 2001, the total appropriation for the Department of Veterans Affairs increased by 98%. These dramatic increases in funding for veterans’ health care were the result of three Republican and one Democratic Congresses to ensure adequate funding by increasing the appropriations over that requested by the Administration.

  • For nearly twenty years, we have fought for some form of concurrent receipt of military retirement pay and VA disability compensation. In 2003 and 2004, Congress acted to address this injustice by establishing Combat Related Special Compensation and Concurrent Disabled Retirement Pay.

  • Even before 9-11, we were working for comprehensive changes to the Montgomery GI Bill. Our position was that today’s servicemen and women deserved an education package comparable to first GI bill of 1944 which in essence provided World War II veterans a fully funded college education. This year, with the passage of the “Post 9-11 Veterans Educational Enhancement Act of 2008”, we achieved a “GI Bill for the 21st Century” which provides a Global War on Terrorism Veteran tuition based on the most expensive public institution in his state, as well as a book allowance, living and housing stipends.

  • We achieved legislation to end the Social Security offset to the Survivor’s Benefits Program and reinstatement of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) for those surviving spouses who remarried after the death of their first spouse, if the marriage to the second spouse ended in death or divorce. Additionally, if a surviving spouse remarries after age 57 they could retain his or her DIC.

What’s Next?-Not since 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt and another Democrat led Congress took the reins of the federal government, has a President and Congress faced an economic crisis which could fundamentally change the fabric of American society. Falling revenues and pressures to prop up financial institutions and other business groups, potentially threaten veterans and military benefits. We must be ever vigilant and ensure that our systems of military and veterans health care, disability compensation and survivors benefits not only remain intact but are enhanced.

· We must gain legislation ensuring that VA Health continues to be adequately and timely funded to ensure that all veterans seeking care receive nothing but world class care regardless of whether he is an 88 year old World War II veteran or she is 18 year old veteran of the Global War on Terrorism. We must never again accept a late VA budget.

· We must pressure the new Congress to recognize the selfless service of Reservists and National Guard members by ensuring all mobilization service is credited towards an early retirement.

· It is time to help Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), in his effort to end the egregious “Military Widows’ Tax” by ending the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset to the Survivors Benefits Annuity.

· We must gain full and complete concurrent receipt of VA disability compensation and military retirement pay for all disabled military retirement pay.

· We must gain legislation which forbids the Defense Department from arbitrarily and capriciously increasing TRICARE fees and co-payments.

This is going to be tough fight, with each and every election the number of veterans serving in the Congress dwindles. This election is no different than earlier elections. Not all the results are in, but, we could have as few as 93 or as many as 99 veterans in the 435 member House of Representatives and depending on how some still contested races turn-out and who are appointed to fill Senators Obama’s and Biden’s seats there could be as few or as many as 29 veterans serving in the United States Senate. It will be up to the Action Corps to take the lead in education these non-veteran public servants.