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American Legion testifies on employment and education rights and benefits

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American Legion Education and Credentialing Policy Associate John Kamin testified April 9 before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Kamin’s testimony focused discussion drafts for the Justice for Servicemembers Act, the Transition Improvement Act and the GI Bill.

The discussion drafts for the Justice for Servicemembers Act aims to amend Title 38 to clarify the scope of procedural rights of members of the uniformed services with respect to their employment and reemployment rights, and for other purposes. Presently, The American Legion believes the act fails to adequately address and support military personnel returning to civilian employment.

“The Justice for Servicemembers Act is a bill that strengthens the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) by deeming forced-arbitration motions unenforceable for the purpose of wrongful termination complaints,” Kamin testified.

The case of Marine Corps Col. Michael T. Garrett — who was terminated from his job due to a pending active duty mobilization — was highlighted by Kamin.

“In accordance with section 4323 on enforcement rights with respect to a private employer, Colonel Garrett filed a USERRA violation in District Court,” Kamin said. “His employer filed a motion to compel forced arbitration. After much dispute, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that USERRA is not a clear expression of congressional intent concerning the arbitration of servicemembers’ employment disputes. Thus, the Garrett precedent was established on USERRA violations, and hence we ask for your support on the Justice for Servicemembers Act.”

The next issue addressed during testimony was the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Mulder Transition Improvement Act. The act is the most notable improvement to the Transition Assistance Program and the overall transition process for servicemembers, including an increased focus on career opportunities and entrepreneurship.

“Notable,” said Kamin, “is its authorization of a five-year pilot program that would provide matching grant funds to community providers that offer wraparound transition services to veterans and transitioning servicemembers."

The restructuring of the act requires servicemembers to select a specific career-oriented track for their post-service plans, as well as require them to undergo one-on-one counseling a year before separation to evaluate which transition pathway best suits them.

Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the “Forever GI Bill,” brings significant changes to veteran education benefits over the coming years. Named after American Legion Past National Commander Harry W. Colmery, the Forever GI Bill is one of the major successes of the 115th Congress.

“The VA faithfully attempted to meet Forever GI Bill deadlines,” said Kamin. “Congress and VSOs attempted to provide sound oversight and support to ensure this outcome. But we failed, and thousands of veterans paid the price in delayed GI Bill payments this past fall semester.”

However, Kamin continued, “we are encouraged by improved outreach and communication on GI Bill implementation.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to take ownership in this success and support Dr. Lawrence in this endeavor, because we have lost the right to disbelief in the event of another GI Bill backlog. Oversight and support must be in real-time and practical, no matter the challenge. That means being transparent about complications and forthright on changes, open to school inputs and adaptive to recommendations. That starts with trust.”


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NATO and the national interest

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NATO turns 70 this month.

The past decade has been marked by a crescendo of U.S. criticism of the alliance. In 2008, for instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly worried about NATO devolving into “a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not." As he left his post in 2011, he complained about the “lack of will” and “lack of resources” among NATO’s European members. During the fight against ISIS, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter scoffed at “our so-called coalition” and implored “all the Europeans … to make more contributions.” At the end of his administration, President Barack Obama grumbled about “free riders” in Europe. At the beginning of his administration, President Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” and “a bad deal for America.” But despite all the headaches and heartburn it causes, the NATO alliance continues to serve the national interest.

Deficiencies

Before detailing how NATO serves U.S. interests, those of us who support NATO must admit that such criticism is not unwarranted. Simply put, some members of the alliance have failed to live up to the responsibilities of membership.

During the Cold War, the United States accounted for 50 percent of NATO military spending; today, the U.S. share of NATO military spending is around 70 percent. “We still do not have fair burden sharing within our alliance,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg concedes.

To address this problem, NATO in 2006 called on members “to commit a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP to spending on defense.” Yet by the end of 2019 — 13 years later — only nine of NATO’s 29 members will meet that standard. These years of underfunding, according to the British government, have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness.”

The good news is that many allies are getting serious about defense. In 2014, only three NATO members spent 2 percent of GDP on defense. By 2024, two-thirds of the alliance will reach the 2-percent-of-GDP standard.

The 2-percent target isn’t a be-all-end-all; there’s nothing magical about that number. However, devoting 2 percent of GDP to defense sends a signal of seriousness and solidarity, and it will prevent NATO’s devolution from an all-for-one alliance into a one-for-all public good.

“By the end of next year,” Stoltenberg recently reported, “NATO allies will add $100 billion extra toward defense ... The clear message from President Donald Trump is having an impact.”

Indeed, 22 members increased defense spending in 2016, and 26 members increased defense spending in 2018.

“All allies have increased their defense spending,” Stoltenberg reported during his recent address to Congress. “Before they were cutting billions. Now they are adding billions.”

This newfound commitment to the common defense is posturing America’s NATO allies to respond to Russian mischief and aggression in the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea.

Insurance

That brings us back to NATO and the national interest.

“Our alliance has not lasted for 70 years out of a sense of nostalgia,” Stoltenberg argues. “NATO lasts because it is in the national interest of each and every one of our nations.”

The first and most important way NATO serves U.S. interests is as a hedge against war. NATO, for lack of a better term, is an insurance policy that benefits both sides of the Atlantic.

Insurance, at its core, is about providing protection against worst-case scenarios. Prudent people hope they never have to use insurance, but they realize that paying a little each month or each year protects them against having to pay a lot — or losing everything — if disaster strikes.

The same is true in the realm of international security. Since its founding in 1949, NATO has been in the insurance business. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty makes it clear to the world that every NATO member will come to the defense of any NATO member that comes under attack in the North Atlantic area.

For the United States, Article V insures against another European conflict triggering another world war. “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” as the Hoover Institution’s Josef Joffe explains, “has spared the U.S. a remake of World Wars I and II .... Staying in Europe after 1945 was a wondrous blessing; not a single shot was fired in Europe during the Cold War. It is always more economical to be in place than to have to fight your way back in.”

For the rest of NATO, Article V is insurance against invasion — a security guarantee backed by the United States. Without that guarantee, there’s no security, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in — from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine.

Like all insurance policies, there are costs associated with NATO. A recent study revealed that U.S. defense expenditures earmarked for Europe amount to $36 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. But consider what we get in exchange for that insurance premium: a Europe not at war with itself, a Europe reinforced against invasion, a Europe free from any hostile power, and the vast trade and economic benefits that flow from these realities. Representing almost half of global GDP, NATO’s members are the engine of the world economy. U.S. trade with NATO allies is more than $1.6 trillion annually — about 30 percent of America’s overall trade.

Just as important, compare the costs of defending Europe with the costs of liberating it. A $36-billion investment in transatlantic peace and security equals 5.5 percent of America’s defense budget and less than 0.2 percent of America’s GDP. During World War I, by way of comparison, the United States spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense — and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers. During World War II, the United States spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense — and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.

In short, NATO is neither a drain on America’s treasury nor a chain dragging America into Europe’s wars. It’s the very opposite.

The “myth is that our allies are making us poor by free-riding on our military expenditures,” as Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, argued before his passing. “How are we to explain that the United States has gotten richer than its allies? Proponents of this argument cannot explain why. They fail to realize that our military alliances, by lowering transaction costs, have facilitated the vast increases in international trade from which the United States profits enormously. Our military costs should be seen as investments that pay us back.”

Evidence

A second — and often-overlooked — way NATO serves the national interest is in the message it conveys.

NATO is tangible evidence to the rest of the world that free government, free markets, free enterprise and the rule of law are a formula for lasting peace and prosperity; that deterrence is the best way to keep the enemies of civilization at bay; that shared values can transcend superficialities such as race, religion, color and creed; and that America keeps its word.

Contributions

Third, many members of NATO have contributed directly to securing American interests.

It pays to recall that NATO was crucial to deterring the Red Army, winning the Cold War and ultimately transforming Eastern Europe from a Soviet-occupied buffer zone of communist dictatorships into a community of liberal democracies. All of these were national-security objectives of the United States that NATO helped secure.

After the Cold War, NATO’s infrastructure and interoperability helped reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The alliance then stamped out ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, stabilized Eastern Europe, formed the basis of multinational armadas that interdicted WMDs and combatted piracy, and prevented a Bosnia-style bloodletting in Libya. Again, all of these were national-security objectives of the United States that NATO helped secure.

NATO’s non-U.S. members spend around $300 billion on defense annually. As the Atlantic Council, these members field 1.857 million active-duty personnel, 1.2 million reserves, 6,983 main battle tanks, 2,612 warplanes, 382 attack helicopters and 252 warships. Today, as during the Cold War, these assets are being put to use to deter Russia. At U.S. urging, NATO recently approved the “Four 30s Plan,” under which NATO allies pledge to have the capability to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of strike aircraft, and 30 warships within 30 days of a go order.

Bridge

Fourth, NATO is a vital bridge to global hot spots, a readymade structure for building coalitions and a force-multiplier for U.S. power.

Consider the war on terrorism. It was always thought that Article V would be invoked when Europe came under attack and sought America’s help. But the only time Article V has ever been invoked was when America came under attack and sought Europe’s help.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, NATO dispatched AWACS planes to guard America’s skies, freeing up U.S. assets to target the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

In the long campaign of campaigns that followed 9/11, NATO has played a key role fighting our common enemy in Afghanistan, where 1,050 European, Canadian and Turkish NATO personnel have been killed in action. “We went in together,” Stoltenberg vows. “And when the time comes, we will leave together.”

NATO formed the core of the coalition that took down Saddam Hussein’s terrorist tyranny in Iraq, where 19 NATO members deployed personnel and 15 NATO members had troops killed in action.

Similarly, the anti-ISIS coalition is built around NATO, with alliance members shouldering almost all of the airstrikes and much of the ground-support mission. In fact, NATO recently launched a 600-man mission in Iraq aimed at training the Iraqi army.

“There is no hope for the U.S. to sustain its role as the world’s sole superpower without the Europeans as allies,” as several former NATO commanders conclude.

“Our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances,” adds Gen. James Mattis. “While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances.”

The generals know something most Americans seldom consider: Protecting the homeland, promoting U.S. interests, ensuring the free flow of goods and resources, preserving some semblance of international order, defending the global commons, responding to natural disasters and manmade chaos — these missions depend on NATO infrastructure in places like Lakenheath, Fairford, Ramstein, Thule, Morón and Aviano.

“If we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it,” Mattis argues. “NATO is vital to our interests.”

As long as that holds true, America should support and sustain the NATO alliance — even with all the headaches and heartburn, disagreements and disappoint. For as Churchill observed, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”


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Boys Nation changed his life

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As he was growing up in Green River, Wyo., Chris Andrews’ perception of the happenings in places like New York City and Washington, D.C., was that they were almost occurring in another country.

“‘This is a big issue for people who are making big decisions, this isn’t for us.’ So coming out of that environment is pretty challenging in a lot of ways,” Andrews recalled.

But his experiences at Wyoming Boys State and American Legion Boys Nation in the summer of 2009 opened his eyes.

“I get to participate in this world as much as anybody else, and there’s no reason that a kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere can’t be a part of this. On the other side of that coin, a kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere has a responsibility to be a part of this,” said Andrews, who was elected Boys Nation President a decade ago and credits his participation in the programs to helping shape his career as a public servant.

“I am a far better person today for having gone to Boys State, and a far better person for having gone to Boys Nation. It’s absolutely a life-changing experience,” he said.

Today, Andrews works for the federal government in Washington, a city he never expected to go to when he first heard about the Boys State program from his high school history teacher, Nathan Loe, and then-commander of American Legion Post 28 in Green River, Harry Holler.

“I didn’t actually know about Boys Nation prior to going to Boys State; I thought it was just one week and it was a civics course for students who were in the state, so my scope was limited to Wyoming,” Andrews said. “I think it was the second to last day that we were there, the Legionnaires gathered us all into the assembly area and said, ‘OK, we’re picking the people who are going to go to Boys Nation. You should cast your vote based on who you think best exemplifies the values of Wyoming Boys State, who will represent us well.’ And of course, I was amongst some very impressive people, and I voted for two guys that I thought were just really outstanding people that I had got to know over the course of the week, and who I’ve since come to know a little bit better since we left high school and kind of moved on with our lives.”

While Andrews thought the opportunity to spend a week in the nation’s capital with other young men from across the nation sounded great, he wasn’t sure he knew enough to be picked.

“They tallied the votes and did a little curating, come to find out my name was one of the two that was picked. I said, ‘OK, I guess my plans (for the summer) have changed a little bit,’” he said.

At Wyoming Boys State, Andrews had lost in the race for governor. But he didn’t let that prevent him from eyeing a run at the presidency of Boys Nation.

“I thought, ‘Might as well toss my hat in the ring. I’m going to be involved somehow, so this election, I’ve got as good a chance as any of winning this one,’” he said.

Plus, there was the chance to make a bit of history.

“I had been told before going to Boys Nation that there has never been a president from Wyoming. I thought, ‘Oh, this would be a neat point of pride for me and could mean something to folks back home. This is something I really ought to do,’” Andrews said.

Andrews had to work to earn the Federalist Party presidential nomination — “I think I had the least number of votes allowed to still stay in the running for two rounds of voting” — but he took the time in between votes to reach out to voters and get to know them.

“Worst-case scenario that comes out of this, I meet somebody that I can become friends with,” he said. “Pretty soon the votes started coming in, and then, lo and behold, I got the party primary and I was just over the moon. I had no expectations going in, and so I was just extremely excited.”

Andrews defeated Tim Schwan of North Carolina in the presidential election.

“The first thing when I got elected I went and called my mom, stepped outside for a minute, ‘Hey, mom, you’re never going to believe this.’ She didn’t for a second. I was thrilled to be elected,” Andrews said.

While Andrews was always interested in politics and public service, with teachers like Loe and others inspiring him to care about history and a citizen’s role in the government, he called his time at Boys State and Boys Nation “an invaluable experience” in shaping his future.

“First of all, it put me into a network of people who have a shared interest and enthusiasm for civics and participation in social and government life. Even years later, it’s been 10 years since I went to Boys Nation, I’m still meeting people who say, ‘Oh, I know what Boys State is’ or ‘I had a really great time there.’ It’s really brought me into a family of sorts.

“But for the program itself, it really sort of stoked the flames that I already had for my interest in civil service and wanting to participate in something that’s bigger than myself. It really instilled in me values of patriotism — not in the sense of beating the chest and parading the flag around, but in committing to working and trying to make life better for others, and not being selfish, being the best person that I can be so that others might have a little bit better life. That really was a foundational part of the values set at Wyoming Boys State — especially in such a sparsely populated area, people have to care for each other. That was really a core part of my education; I tried to take that with me to Boys Nation and then to college and my professional life and beyond. It really was a life-changing experience,” he said.

Having the experience of Boys State and Boys Nation is “very much a feather in the cap,” Andrews added.

“When people see Boys State and Boys Nation on a resume, they immediately see this person has an interest in leadership and leadership potential. The programs have been around for such a long time and they have such a great reputation that people are bound to take a look at that and say, ‘Wow, this is somebody that I might have a shared experience with,’ or ‘This is somebody whose experiences would be a valuable asset in my team, my company.’ It’s absolutely a career booster, and if nothing else, it gives you a connection that might open doors somewhere else,” he said.


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Legion to VA: ‘Fix communication breakdowns’

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Calling it a case of “mission delayed turning into mission failure,” American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad called for VA officials to implement a plan to prevent future communication breakdowns between home-care social workers and VA medical centers.

Reistad specifically referred to the case of a veteran who had to undergo a partial leg amputation due to delays in receiving home health consultations after being discharged from the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. The patient, who was treated for diabetic ketoacidosis and an ulcerated foot abscess, “did not receive the necessary home health care,” according to U.S. Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner.

The patient required frequent changes to his wound dressings. As a result of the veteran not receiving the necessary care, an infection occurred which later required a below-the-knee amputation. Investigators determined that social workers were directed to stop entering home health care consults into the Computerized Patient Record System due to a lack of training.

“The U.S. Office of Special Counsel assured the president that VA has taken the necessary steps to prevent similar problems in the future,” Reistad said. “The American Legion certainly hopes that those assurances are well-founded. Too many veterans have lost their limbs on the battlefield. They should not be losing limbs due to bureaucratic malpractice.

"We thank the whistleblowers who helped expose this case. It reinforces why The American Legion supported legislation that protects these brave employees. The American Legion believes in VA. It’s why The American Legion visits VA medical facilities across the country as part of our System Worth Saving program, so we can identify critical needs and share best practices. We will certainly review this latest incident again as part of our SWS agenda. We also believe that recent reforms such as the Mission Act and increased accountability will improve an already-strong VA system. That said, tragedies such as what happened in Indianapolis should never occur. We expect VA to learn from this and act accordingly.”


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Chairman Takano: “This Is A National Crisis”

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) released the statement below following several concerning reports of veteran suicides in the past week: “My sincere condolences to the family and friends of the veteran who died by suicide last night outside the Austin VA facility. This is a national crisis that we all need to address. Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access, but with three incidents on VA property in just five days, and six this year alone, it’s critical we do more to stop this epidemic. All Americans have a role to play in reducing veteran suicide, and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is going to make this issue a top priority. Already, our Committee has hosted a bipartisan roundtable and staff level briefing to better understand the crisis. Additionally, I have called for a full committee hearing later this month, the first of many, to hear from VA about the recent tragedies and spark a larger discussion about what actions we can take together as a nation. As Americans, we are proud of the service and sacrifice our veterans have made for our country-- it’s time we match this pride with action and support to ensure our veterans get the care they earned and deserve.” ###

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