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Bennet Highlights Need for More Veteran Services

Photo by Kirk Siegler
Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo) listens to a speaker at a veterans forum Monday morning in Englewood.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet says the country is woefully under prepared to handle an influx of military veterans once a massive troop withdrawal in Iraq begins later this year.  The Democrat made the remarks Monday at a forum which coincided with the release of a report outlining a number of proposed policy changes aimed at tackling the problem.Sobering Statistics

On average, eighteen veterans from all branches of the military commit suicide every day in America, and veterans are now believed to comprise roughly a quarter of the country’s entire homeless population; just two of many sobering statistics that formed the backdrop of the forum held in a crowded room at the American Legion Post in Englewood. 

The event was the public’s first glimpse at a report dubbed “Better Serving Those Who Have Served” – which was written after a series of task forces back in August convened by Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo).

“I am absolutely convinced that if we follow up on the recommendations in this report, (and) that it doesn’t sit on a shelf some place collecting dust, we will be able to say that Colorado is the best place for a veteran to call home,” Bennet told the crowd.

To that end, the report lists a number of proposed policy changes, including programs that aim to better train vets for the workforce, more efficiently streamline access to VA benefits and legislation that the Senator plans to introduce this week that would create a National Veterans Foundation, modeled after the charity goals of the existing public-private National Parks Foundation.

“One percent of our country is currently serving in the military, meaning one percent of our country has born 100 percent of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bennet said. “It’s time to make sure the other 99 percent of us are fully supporting all of you as we wind down these wars.”

Winding Down

Indeed, there’s every indication that the challenges outlined in the report will be amplified by two key, looming dates: the end of this year when President Obama has pledged to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq and the end of 2014 when a similar effort is to be completed in Afghanistan. 

Now, veterans have always faced huge challenges returning home, but perhaps never as great as the present, said Bill Conroy, the head of the Colorado Division of Veteran’s Affairs.

“They’re coming home to very little jobs and an education system that quite frankly is not going to work for a lot of them,” he said.

Conroy wants to see more veteran’s representatives on college campuses, as well as more congressional oversight on for-profit, online colleges.  Many vets have turned to those institutions as a source of training and support but have also racked up enormous debt and still don’t have jobs.

“Those are going to be our new, young, homeless, unless we be proactive,” Conroy said.

Veterans React

The message resonated with forum attendees like John Wall. In 2007, Wall was injured in a roadside blast outside Baghdad.  He successfully had two discs replaced in his back, but today he’s still grappling with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I see a lot of hope in that report, (but) still have some questions,” Wall said.

Wall, who works for a Colorado Springs-based program called Life Quest Transitions which helps wounded veterans transition to life beyond the military, said the report could do more to address problems veteran’s face with potential employers, that is, he said, employers who may not know enough about PTSD or TBI.

Wall added that many veterans simply aren’t compared to compete yet for private sector jobs.

“I think one thing that we’re struggling with is the fact that soldiers are not prepared for an aggressive job market, for having to fight for these positions,” Wall said.

Still, Wall said he’s hopeful the action items listed in the report will in fact be acted on. 

Polarized Congress

The current divided Congress is no doubt one of the biggest obstacles to this. 

Senator Bennet addressed this cloud of uncertainty in an interview after the forum. 

“We’re not going to wait for the Congress to pass legislation, we’re going to start moving ahead on the recommendations that have been made in this report,” Bennet said. “There are things that can be done in there administratively.”

Bennet, who supports President Obama’s troop withdrawal plan, said he’ll first lobby the president to make administrative changes to the Transition Assistance, or TAP Program, which he said needs to be streamlined so that soldiers have an easier time adapting to private sector jobs.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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