The debt we owe to our military and veterans is our greatest obligation. We have a moral responsibility to keep our promises to those who have sacrificed to protect our country. As President Obama has said, we owe veterans the care they were promised and the benefits they have earned. To the more than 470,000 veterans in Maryland, I promise that I will be a strong voice and champion for you and for veterans across the country. I will not support any measures that seek to balance the budget on the backs of our veterans.
Active Duty Issues
Our country spent most of the last decade engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Fighting these large-scale wars resulted in repeated tours of duty with limited gaps in between, putting stress on soldiers, their families, and the armed forces in general. As a recent Department of Defense report noted, “Heightened operational tempo, repeated deployments and insufficient quantity and quality of dwell time have had a cumulative fatiguing effect on Service Members, and a degradation of the overall fitness and readiness of the force.”
At times, our troops have spent more time deployed than they did at home. These soldiers were often deployed beyond the envisioned timetables. The Army now has a 1:3 active component cycle and a 1:4 cycle for the Army Reserve. This means, barring national emergencies, active soldiers will deploy for one year and be home for three. This is a predictable and sustainable model that will not put undue strain on our soldiers and military families. In Congress, I would support all efforts to provide appropriate dwell times for troops and their families during times of war. I believe it is a priority to continue this policy to protect our fighting men and women and their families.
Supporting Our Military Families
Spouses and children of veterans and active duty service members have often endured as much pain and hardship as their loved ones. Month after month these families worry if their loved one will make it home alive. When they do return, the family goes through trying periods of reintegration and readjustment. We need to expand outreach to not only service members and veterans, but the people who stand behind them. This includes appropriate access to childcare. Reserve families deserve the same level of support and resources that active duty families receive. Helping to build stronger families and supporting a community of military families will be a priority of mine in Congress.
I support the White House’s Strengthening Our Military Families Initiative and the Joining Forces Initiative, which make the bureaucratic process easier for military families.
For veterans, like the rest of the country, employment is one of today’s most important and critical issues. This is not just a matter of economics; it is a matter of dignity. Veterans deserve the dignity of gainful employment that provides a standard of living befitting their service to our country. The issue of employment is especially acute for our disabled veterans. Full support for job training programs and veterans’ healthcare are a part of the equation. In Congress I will make sure that our disabled veterans can find good jobs when they return home.
A concerted national effort has finally started to get veterans back to work. Last year, the unemployment rate for veterans was 12.5%, well above the national average. Today it has fallen to 7.6%, actually below the national average. While this progress is important, we simply cannot rest until every veteran that wants a job has one.
I support President Obama’s recent initiatives to help address veteran unemployment. The President has proposed creating a Veterans Job Corps, expanding the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program, expanding hiring grant funding for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, and encouraging programs to give first preference to veterans. These proposals are an important step to continue reducing unemployment for veterans.
Our veteran’s bodies and minds are placed under enormous stress and abuse during their service that can lead to permanent disabilities. These disabilities often make it challenging for veterans to work and help support their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) needs to take action, improve their system, become more efficient and get the benefits that were so fiercely earned into the hands of our veterans.
The VA does heroic work. But because of the increased number of veterans they are clearly falling behind. More than fourteen thousand initial claims of disability have been pending in the VA’s Baltimore Regional Office for more than 125 days. That is more than 80% of all outstanding claims.
Once patients are in the system we need to find better ways to efficiently treat veterans. Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC) allow for easier access and faster treatment in many cases. Convenient access to CBOCs is often vital to a veteran’s transition to the civilian workforce.
In Congress, I will work with the rest of the Maryland delegation to ensure that we have the funding needed for the appropriate number of CBOCs for the veterans of our state.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the one of the greatest benefits ever bestowed upon veterans. It provides tuition, books, pays for testing, fees, and offers a housing allowance. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 was meant to improve these benefits. However, its overall effect was to severely limit benefits for many veterans by capping yearly tuition to $17,500. This forced veterans to hope for a slot in the Yellow Ribbon Program, or take out thousands upon thousands in loans to pay for a school that the year before was fully paid for.
Another downside was the elimination of “break pay”. When a veteran is a full time student he or she receives a housing stipend during the semester, they are paid during both fall and spring break. Prior to this improvement, veterans still received a housing allowance between the fall and spring semesters, this is no longer the case. This places a large burden on veterans. For example, for a veteran with a spouse and children that means finding a full-time job during Christmas that can pay enough to cover rent, food, and other necessities. That is no easy task in a sluggish economy. As a quality of life issue “break pay” should be restored to Chapter 33 benefits.
While only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, nearly one-fifth of the homeless population is made up of veterans. This is unacceptable. No one who has served our country should find themselves without a safe and affordable place to live. There are programs, like the Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (VASH) program, that provides Section 8 permanent housing assistance to veterans, but they are not doing enough. Homeless veterans and their families should not have to fight for space on a very short list to receive housing. When I am elected, I will strive to provide an increase in housing vouchers.
 “The Challenge and the Promise: Strengthening the Force, Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives,” Final Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, August 2010, Page 15