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Veterans' advocates lobby hard for attention on Capitol Hill

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., left, talks with veterans before an Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America press conference on Capitol Hill that was intended to call attention to the Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits backlog problem. At right is Navy veteran Art Davis, who is displaying the number of days he's been waiting.

This report has been corrected.

WASHINGTON — Nearly every major veterans advocacy organization has visited Capitol Hill over the last month, pushing lawmakers to keep the focus on their issues amid the financial fights in Congress.

This week, leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America brought dozens of young vets to Washington to visit lawmakers and relate their stories.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion held similar lobbying trips earlier in March, and the House and Senate veterans committees invited 18 different advocacy groups to testify on their priorities for the upcoming year.

Here’s a look at the top talking points from those lawmaker visits:

Benefits backlog

The still-growing backlog of veterans waiting for disability and compensation claims is the top priority of nearly every veterans organization this year. Over the last three years, the number of claims that took more than 125 days to process rose to more than 600,000 from 180,000.

Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs say they are on a path toward fixing the problem, predicting they will eliminate the backlog in the next two years through a series of new processing programs.

Veterans advocates are skeptical.

Richard Delaney, president of the Retired Enlisted Association, told lawmakers he thinks the source of the problem is low staffing levels and poor management of claims processors. The veterans lobbyists are pushing for more incentives for top performers and more punishment for claims workers who fall behind.

Suicides

VA research shows an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide in America each day, up sharply from just a few years ago.

The department has hired more than 1,100 mental health staffers over the last seven months, but several outside veterans groups say that process should have started much earlier.

They’ve also praised expansion of the VA’s suicide hot line, but say officials need better outreach efforts to veterans suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to prevent them from becoming suicidal.

“Much more needs to be done,” Bob Norton, deputy director at the Military Officers Association of America, said at a hearing last month. “A crisis of this magnitude requires a full court press at all levels in the government working with states and community providers.”

Sequestration

The Department of Veterans Affairs is exempt from the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect March 1, but veterans groups have kept it a key part of their platforms, saying it undermines military readiness and hurts the next generation of veterans.

Most of the sequestration conversation from the groups has focused on the cuts to defense programs, which will have secondary effects on veterans. Officials have said job training programs for separating servicemembers and joint health initiatives between the Defense Department and VA will be pinched by the budget cuts.

They also said cuts to defense programs today can easily turn into cuts to veterans programs tomorrow.

“America will soon turn its attention to other national priorities once our troops come home,” said John Hamilton, national commander of the VFW. “That is why we are here (testifying on Capitol Hill) today, to assure our nation does not turn its back on the brave men and women who have borne the battle, and doesn’t forget their families who also served and sacrificed.”

Job training

Overall veterans unemployment has actually tracked better than national averages over the last few years. But veterans lobbyists say more needs to be done to help veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars make the transition from military service to civilian work.

That includes expanding job training opportunities for veterans of all ages, improvements to the post-9/11 GI Bill and easier credentialing in civilian jobs for those with military skills.

The veterans advocates note that getting fulfilling post-military jobs is often key in preventing homelessness and other reintegration problems.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

The VFW national commander's name was incorrectly reproted. His name is John Hamilton.

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