Vets groups cautiously optimistic about Obama’s efforts
Stars and Stripes August 5, 2009
STRIPES CENTRAL BLOG: Notes from Stripes' White House interview with President Obama and Secretary Shinseki
WASHINGTON — Veterans groups are thrilled with the focus the president has put on veterans issues so far this year.
Now, they want to see some results.
“If the administration comes back in a year and is still two years away from their goals, then it’s just been a good year of talking,” said Ray Kelly, legislative director for AMVETS. “If there has been progress, that’s when the real praise will come.”
As thousands of troops bearing mental scars stream back from fighting two major wars, President Barack Obama acknowledged this week that it will take years before Veterans Affairs officials are fully ready to address their complex emotional issues.
In a White House roundtable with Stars and Stripes and other military reporters, President Barack Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said they are proud of the progress so far in updating the department’s operations.
“Both the VA and DOD understand these very human issues are dealt with in the most thoughtful and effective way possible,” Obama said. “We’re putting time and energy behind it. I’m focused on it personally.”
But the president also conceded that dealing with the most serious problems — stress disorders, suicide rates, long-term health care — will be “a multi-year project” that depends on more sweeping improvements within the VA and Department of Defense.
For now, veterans groups are content to watch and wait. American Legion National Commander David Rehbein, who also met with Obama this week, said he left the White House confident that veterans issues remain a priority for the commander in chief.
“I’ll take him at his word for now,” Rehbein said. “He said he’s focused on long-term goals like the GI Bill and military family issues, and with his budget moves it seems that he wants to do what’s right for veterans.”
Earlier this year, Obama pledged $25 billion in new VA funding over the next five years to deal with emerging issues like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, a move the president dubbed one of his biggest successes in office.
“If you want to grade him purely on dollars and cents, he’s asked for more money for veterans than any administration in decades and he’s going to get it,” said Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “So we have a good feeling about where he’s headed.”
IAVA in January made advance appropriations – making tens of millions in VA health program funds available at the start of the fiscal year even if lawmakers haven’t approved the VA budget – its top legislative goal for the year. Congress is now on the verge of approving that request from Obama.
Campbell said now they’ve shifting attention to more mandatory counseling for returning troops and veterans, another area where the new administration has already made improvements.
Shinseki noted that the VA today employs more than 18,000 counselors, including more employees at suicide hotlines and mental health outreach programs.
“We know if we get them into treatment, the get better,” Shinseki said. “We also know if we don’t get them into treatment, it doesn’t get better, and more often it becomes debilitating.”
Last month, a VA report showed that more than one-third of returning Iraq and Afghanistan troops using the veterans’ health system have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, a rate nearly double what it was the last time the study was done in 2004.
Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org, said those numbers aren’t a surprise, considering the pace of the two wars. He has been encouraged by Obama’s reaction to not just to the imminent PTSD problem but also to his broader approach to the VA system.
“He seems to understand it in a different capacity than the last president,” he said. “This isn’t just about money. Money is just part of the problem.”
Still, Soltz said, it’s too early to judge whether Obama can follow through on his ambitious goals for the department. Shinseki’s appointment and his leadership thus far are positives, he said, but six months is not enough time to see actual results.
“We need to be having that conversation a year from now, during the mid-term elections,” he said.
Obama said his goal moving ahead is “making sure there is a culture within the VA that is consumer friendly, that is oriented not towards keeping people out, but getting them the services they need.”
The president promised that his recent focus on national health care won’t change that, and that any health care plan he signs off on won’t affect the military’s Tricare system or the VA’s services.
The American Legion had publicly expressed such concerns in recent weeks; Rehbein said he left the White House Tuesday promising to carry that message of non-interference with military and veterans health care to other veterans organizations.
Amid the health care debate and continued economic slump, Obama told Tuesday’s rountable that he wanted to discuss veterans issues now because “we think we’ve got a great story to tell about where we’re moving.”
But, he added, “it’s going to take some time.”