WASHINGTON — Amid all the talk of a shrinking military and declining levels of readiness, veterans groups are increasingly sounding an alarm of their own — that federal budget woes could translate into a shortage of services for veterans just as the need is growing.
The American Legion, which bills itself as the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, is meeting for its annual conference in Washington this week, with leaders testifying before Congress, and members descending on Capitol Hill to make their concerns known.
American Legion National Commander Dan Dellinger sat down Tuesday with Stars and Stripes to discuss the Legion’s work with legislators, its partnership with the Department of Veterans affairs, and its plans for the future. The interview has been condensed for space reasons.
Q: With the Afghanistan war ending and the defense spending on a downward trajectory, could veterans fall between the cracks?
A: Most definitely. As we’ve seen after previous wars, once a war is over, the veteran is forgotten about. We just want to make sure they continue to get the best health care possible. With an estimated 1.2 million of them coming off active duty in the next four years, we need to make sure that they have education and jobs, and that they and their families are being taken care of — medically, and mentally and psychologically, too.
Q: A big point of the conference this week is pushing the American Legion’s legislative priorities. How well are you getting along with Congress at the moment?
A: We get good reception in Congress for the things we back. We all know there’s a fiscal strain right now, and the Budget Control Act has had an effect. But the only sector of America to have its paycheck cut because of that was veterans, with the 1 percent reduction in COLA [in the recent two-year bipartisan budget deal.] But Congress rethought it and with our advocacy, they reversed their decision. But what got me was that portion was done behind closed doors.
Q: Speaking of retirement, what’s the Legion’s take on recent Pentagon ideas about changing the retirement system for future troops?
A: They put together [the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission] to study this, and I’d rather see it left alone until the commission comes out with its findings, which are due next February. Then we’ll take a hard look at each proposal. I mean, they have so much stuff flying in the air right now that I’m not really sure what we could say that would be accurate at this point.
Q: What do you think about proposals like introducing a 401(k)-type system, or reduced benefits for working-age retirees, or becoming eligible for some retirement payments before 20 years?
A: We’re going to fight that.
Q: Does the Legion worry about whether the VA will lack funds to care for a new wave of veterans?
A: That is a big concern. It just isn’t that generation, but it’s also the older generation. More veterans are coming into the system — the older veterans now — because of the limitations in the health care that they are getting or have access to. With the new Obamacare, a lot of them are losing or are going to have to pay a greater amount of money for private health care, so they’re coming to the VA. The VA has to be ready for that plus the 1.2 million who are now coming back.
Q: How do you grade the ongoing effort to reduce the VA disability claims backlog and reduce wait times for veterans?
A: They’ve spent a billion dollars trying to get the seamless electronic medical records up and running. They’ve failed miserably. They need to get it done now, because they claims process takes so long. It’s an average now of 282 days — that’s what I saw two weeks ago from the VA numbers — to process a claim. And the majority of that time is waiting for paper records to come.
Q: What’s the big holdup?
A: Right now they just aren’t staffed. They’ve been getting the disability backlog down by 22 percent in the last 3 years, and the way they’ve done it is through overtime. If you had more staff you wouldn’t have to pay overtime, and get it down the way that’s needed.
Q: What’s the Legion doing to help?
A: We have almost 3,000 volunteer service officers assisting every day to help veterans through the process. We concentrate on what we call “fully developed claims,” where all the paperwork’s there once it goes in. We’re actually seeing less than 100 days from the time that they process that until they get a check in hand. I had a discussion with a gentleman in a town I visited about a month ago who told me, “You just can’t imagine. I spent six months trying to get through this bureaucracy.” It was only when our service office assisted him that he actually got everything filed. He had his money in less than 100 days.
Q: How is the American Legion its doing as an organization these days?
A: We’re strong. We’ve got 2.4 million members and I’m looking to grow this year and continue to grow. We’ve put in place a five-year-and-beyond membership plan to get more members to help run this. What we do in our communities, too, is just phenomenal.
Q: What’s your plan to attract veterans from recent wars?
A: I say this: “Build it and they will come.” And we’ve built it. We’re getting younger veterans in, they’re coming slowly. It was 10 years after I got off active duty that I came to the American Legion. I was raising a family, starting a business, trying to get my master’s. But when I saw the good things it was doing in our community, that’s why I joined. And that’s why they’ll join — because of what we do for America. We continue to serve after taking that uniform off.