A combat veteran with more than 20 years combined in the U.S. Army, Army Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., admitted transitioning out of the military was somewhat difficult for him.
But Coffman, who has represented Colorado’s Sixth District since 2008, said the transition process is even more difficult for those leaving the military now.
“It’s much harder for most of the young men and women (now) trying to return to civilian life from the military,” Coffman told The American Legion's 97th National Convention on Sept. 2 in Baltimore. “They’re not officers. Oftentimes, they have families. I think it’s very important we utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that we expand the … on-the-job training and apprenticeship training programs … where they can utilize the GI Bill to cover their living expenses.
“Let’s put our returning veterans back to work in job-training programs that pay a living wage and give our veterans the job skills that will provide them a pathway to achieving the American dream.”
Coffman, who sits on both the House Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called for continued reform in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I think we all know that we have some very serious situations when it comes to the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said. “Those responsible for the leadership failures in the VA must be held accountable. And the whistleblowers who have the courage to step forward must be protected.”
VA also must get out of the construction business, Coffman said.
“In April of 2013, a GAO report said, even at that time, each of the four major hospital construction projects that the VA had … were hundreds of millions of dollars over budget (and) years behind schedule,” he said. “(VA) is a health-care provider and a benefits provider to the men and women who have served this country and earned those benefits. It is not a construction-management entity. The Army Corps of Engineers is a construction-management entity. That is a core competency. The VA must be stripped of its construction authority, and that authority must be transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Coffman also said as the number of women veterans grow, so must their health-care system’s efforts to accommodate them. “The VA needs to change their health model and make it more accessible for women, with appropriate providers in the health-care system to serve the needs of our women veterans who are now 20 percent of all recruits throughout the military,” he said. “The VA health-care system does not reflect that. (It) must change to reflect the modern reality of women serving in our military.”
No matter why they are called to action, Coffman said the country owes it to members of the military to support them. He said that as support for the Vietnam War divided the country, so did support for the men and women serving in the U.S. military. Many weren’t welcomed home when they returned. “We must never do that again to any veteran returning from war to this country,” he said.
The American Legion honored The Oak Ridge Boys with its Patriot Award Sept. 2 in Baltimore during the national convention. But after receiving the award, the Country Music Hall of Fame performers said the honor was all theirs.
“We are honored to stand with our American Legion,” band member Joe Bonsall said. “Every night, whenever we mention on our stage that we are now associated with The American Legion and with the work that they are doing for our returning veterans today – and what they have done for years – people respond in such a positive and wonderful way."
The Patriot Award is given to recognize great deeds and exemplary acts of service. The Oak Ridge Boys teamed up with The American Legion on a series of public-service announcements raising awareness and support for needs of U.S. military veterans, including better detection and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, help with the VA benefits process, and education and career opportunities for those who served our nation in uniform.
“By using their considerable talents to raise awareness and support for the needs of veterans and their families, The Oak Ridge Boys are an obvious choice for this prestigious honor,” American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said. “Duane Allen, Richard Sterban, Joe Bonsall and William Lee Golden are great Americans who have entertained people worldwide with their stirring hits and amazing record of success. Their blend of gospel, country and rock make The Oak Ridge Boys true American icons.”
Bonsall said the group’s work with the Legion helped an important mission. “A lot of veterans fall through the cracks these days,” he said. “But The American Legion has stepped up to the plate. You are doing something. That’s why The Oak Ridge Boys are honored to stand with you and with the work that you are doing.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr., D-Md., has seen improvements made by the Department of Veterans Affairs and areas where the department still needs to improve. Addressing The American Legion National Convention in Baltimore, Van Hollen discussed another area that can impact VA: the threat of sequestration.
“We need a VA that’s built not just for today, but for the demands of tomorrow,” said Van Hollen, who represents Maryland’s 8th District and serves as ranking member of the House Budget Committee. “However, it’s also important to recognize that no amount of reform at the VA will address another very real potential threat to veterans benefits. That is the threat from these across-the-board cuts that go by the name sequestration. Translated very simply, sequestration cuts mean dramatic, across-the-board reductions in resources for federal agencies, including (VA) and other veterans programs.”
Van Hollen said sequestration was never intended to take effect. “People recognized that it would be a really bad idea to make those additional deep cuts in our national defense budget and those additional deep cuts in things like (National Institutes of Health) research and Department of Veterans Affairs.”
The past two years, an agreement was reached in Congress that prevented the worst of those deep cuts to defense and discretionary spending, Van Hollen said. “But that two-year agreement has expired,” he said. “As of today, Congress has not reached that agreement, and the new budget year begins Oct. 1. I’m just here to call upon all of you, regardless of your political party persuasion, to urge the Congress to work this out in a way that does not allow those deep cuts to trigger in defense and those deep cuts to that non-defense part of the budget that includes veterans programs.”
Van Hollen said that advance funding for VA will protect all but 15 percent of the department’s programs. However, the Veterans Benefits Administration is one of the programs that is not protected from sequestration cuts.
“I’m very much hoping that between now and the end of this month, Congress will get its act together and avoid a government shutdown,” Van Hollen said. “It was a scandal the first time. It was a pretty shameful episode … in terms of the functioning of government.”
On the subject of veterans, Van Hollen said actions, not words, are needed for caring for those who have worn the nation’s uniform. “It’s very important that we not just speak the words of providing support, but we deliver on those words,” he said. “That is true when it comes to (VA’s) disability backlog, it’s true when it comes to health-care benefits, and for goodness sakes we should make sure there is no veteran in the United States who is homeless after serving their country.”
Van Hollen thanked Legionnaires for their previous service to their country “and for the service you continue to perform in terms of making sure our country is focused on providing for the needs of today’s soldiers, as well as making sure that we make good on the promises that we made to the good men and women who served our country so well.”
1st Lt. Ken Weathers describes a three-day visit to Baltimore funded by The American Legion’s Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program as a “blessing.”
Army soldiers Weathers, Sgt. Joshua Heath and husband-and-wife Mark and Carol Evans are recovering from various injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. During The American Legion National Convention, underway in Baltimore, they learned about VA benefits, received information about careers, and enjoyed experiences like a behind-the-scenes tour at the National Aquarium and the preseason football game between the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins.
“We enjoyed talking with them and networking with them, knowing that these programs are out there and learning the information,” Weathers said. “We are all really grateful. It was really fantastic. It was a great opportunity to learn about VA benefits from the people who were there. It’s a very unique opportunity.”
The trip to Baltimore will have an impact even after the soldiers return to Walter Reed.
“This is an opportunity to get away and not be so intimately focused on the rehab and recovery part,” Weathers said. “This helps our resiliency. The resiliency helps our ability to handle the mental aspect of things as much as the physical part. For me, attending the events, having fun and getting the knowledge and enjoying the camaraderie, and meeting new people, has been great for the mental resilience in our recovery.”
Heath, who was on bedrest for four months while he recovered from back surgery, is thankful for this weekend’s experience. “Unless you’ve been through it, you never understand what it means that people will come help out and take us to Baltimore for a weekend,” he said. “It’s amazing. Now, we have friends and information that will be with us for the rest of our lives.”
The social aspect is important to the Evanses.
“We’re both hermit crabs,” said Carol, who met Mark while they were stationed in Germany. “It does help to go out and meet new people and see different places. We had never been to Baltimore. It opens everything up.”
The weekend activities opened up Carol’s eyes to the Legion.
“The American Legion – I had no idea they did so much for veterans,” she said. “I knew about them, but I didn’t know what they did. It gives me the opportunity to go back and get my BA in my field. For the donors, they are the ones who made this possible. So, thank you. I’m grateful.”
The Baltimore trip was paid for by OCW, which is funded through donations to the program. OCW also provides equipment for adaptive sports therapy programs, clothing and toiletries for homeless veterans, and other items that assist wounded service personnel and veterans.
“The donations, which make it possible for OCW, is truly a blessing,” said Weathers, who added that he intends to join the Legion when he returns home to Tennessee. “It’s very humbling for me. It is impossible to be able to describe in words how grateful I am. It’s truly a blessing.”