Pentagon Should “Abort Mission” to Recoup Veteran Bonuses

November is a time to honor America’s veterans. But instead, the Pentagon is waging a bitter battle with nearly 10,000 of them.

The battle can be traced back to 2006 – the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To fill its ranks, the Pentagon offered incentives (monetary bonuses, loans, tuition repayment etc.) to soldiers with certain assignments, such as intelligence and civil affairs. However, in a desperate attempt to meet re-enlistment targets, the California National Guard offered the incentives widely. In total, it provided at least $15,000 to 9,700 soldiers.

The “rampant fraud and mismanagement” was uncovered in 2010. One guard pled guilty to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But it didn’t end there. In a series of “accusatory” and “aggressive” letters, the Pentagon demanded repayment from the 9,700 soldiers.

Many soldiers struggled to meet the demands. Some depleted their life savings or re-mortgaged their home. Others agreed to repayment plans and wage garnishment. To compound the problem, veterans were charged interest on any amount owing and their credit scores plummeted.

These struggles have sparked an outcry from veterans, non-profits, and the public. One veteran said “It’s an insult to my service! We wonder why veterans are homeless [and] why they don’t trust the system”. The American Legion added “[The soldiers’] decision to volunteer…was based on the understanding that the government would provide promised incentives…the roughly 9,700 veterans did not cause this problem but, instead, honored their commitments faithfully”. Finally, a Platoon Sergeant said, “We can bail out the banks, but we can’t bail out the veterans that fight and die for this country?”

Last week, the Department of Defense responded. After recouping $22 million from veterans, Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would temporarily suspend its repayment program. Yet, veterans are not completely out of the line of fire. The Pentagon plans to review each case one-by-one until July 1, 2017. Thus, veterans will have to endure months of wondering “whether the bill collector is going to come after them.” Some “still may be ordered to surrender the money”.

Want to learn more about veterans issues? Visit our partners, Give an Hour, Veterans Path, and Still Serving Veterans.

 

 

Combatting Veteran Homelessness in the “Home of the Brave”

This Fourth of July, at Independence Day events across the country, Americans will recognize the 21.4 million US veterans. They will host parades and deliver speeches extolling the veterans for their service and sacrifice. But what many Americans fail to appreciate are the major challenges that servicemen/women face upon returning to civilian life.

This week, country superstar Tim McGraw drew attention to one of the most profound and intractable challenges: homelessness. In collaboration with Operation Homefront and Chase Bank, he awarded 6 mortgage-free homes to US veterans. McGraw plans to donate 30 more homes during his 2015 tour – one for each remaining tour stop. According to McGraw, “For [veterans] to be able to come back and…have a home that is secure and safe is something that really hit home for me,” McGraw said.

Regrettably, McGraw’s efforts will make only a small dent in the homelessness problem. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. This equates to approximately 12% of the homeless adult population. Worse still, the HUD believes that around 1.4 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

So how does one go from revered soldier to living on the streets? The causes are often linked to military service. To begin, many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or physical disabilities following combat. Such conditions, in turn, can lead to costly substance abuse problems. Some veterans also see their relationship deteriorate during deployments. Thus, they return home to a lack of family and social support networks. Moreover, military positions and training “are not always transferable to the civilian workforce”, resulting in un- or under-employment. The resulting income is often insufficient to cover rent or mortgage payments.

In light of these causes, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has adopted a three-prong approach to combat homelessness: 1) conducting outreach to locate veterans in need, 2) connecting homeless and at-risk veterans with housing solutions, healthcare, and employment, and 3) collaborating with other agencies and non-profits to expand affordable housing options. The “housing solutions” include Housing Choice vouchers (subsidies paid directly to landlords), VA-supported transitional housing, and discounted mortgages on foreclosed properties. These efforts have helped reduce the number of homeless veterans by an impressive 70% since 2005.

Still, more is needed to house our heroes. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recommends rapid re-housing and Housing First strategies, complemented by supportive services for those with mental or physical disabilities. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans advocates for transitional housing where veterans can live together in a structured, substance-free environment. Whatever the strategy, it will require effecive collaboration between the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Housing homeless veterans is the least Americans can do to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans— “the men and women who have put everything on the line for their country”. But it is more than just a moral imperative. In words attributed to George Washington, “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve …shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” Thus, supporting veterans is truly an “investment in the strength…and security of our society”.

To learn more, or lend your support, please contact Operation Homefront, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, or our partners, Give an Hour, Honoring the Path, and Still Serving Veterans.

American Sniper Triggers Key Conversation

587578Americans are abuzz over American Sniper. The Clint Eastwood film grossed $105 million in its opening weekend, more than The Hobbit and Avatar. It has shattered January box office records in “red and blue states, small and large cities, tiny towns — everywhere”. Furthermore, it has earned 6 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and best leading actor.

But Americans are buzzing about more than the blockbuster sales and moving performances. They are also embroiled in a heated debate on the subject of the film, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle completed four tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. During this time, he racked up 160 confirmed enemy kills, making him the most lethal US sniper in history.

In 2009, Kyle received an honorable discharge after 10 years of service. He returned to Texas and wrote a best-selling memoir, in which he claimed to have killed over 200 enemy combatants, 2 Texan car thieves, and 30 looters after Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, Kyle met his end in 2013 when he “was shot point-blank and killed by Eddie Ray Routh, a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.

American Sniper, and its profile of Kyle, has provoked intense reactions on both sides. Some argue that the film glorifies a “misanthropic, racist, stone-cold killer”. In Los Angles, vandals painted “Murder!” on a billboard for the film. Others call the film “jingoistic propaganda”. Actor Seth Rogan, for example, likened it to the Nazi propaganda movie in Inglorious Basterds. But perhaps the most incendiary comments came from director and anti-gun activist, Michael Moore. Quoting his father, Moore stated that sniper “aren’t heroes” but “cowards [that] will shoot you in the back”. He noted that Martin Luther King Jr, honored this week, was “killed by a sniper’s bullet”.

On the flip side, many have fervently defended the film. Former Navy SEAL sniper instructor Brandon Webb says that the film “[celebrates] a hero...when the country needs a hero”. Country singer and veteran Craig Morgan hailed the film’s depiction of military sacrifice, stating “you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain our freedoms”. And the often-controversial Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook: “God bless our troops, especially our snipers”.

Spokespeople for the film have a more measured response. Bradley Cooper, who portrayed Kyle, explains that “the film wasn’t intended to be political but a human story about a soldier’s life and internal struggles…We hope that you can have your eyes opened to the struggle of the soldier rather than the specifics of the war”. The filmmakers concur, asserting that they “wanted the movie to be a thoughtful character study of the most lethal military sniper in U.S. history”.

Regardless of your perspective, one thing is clear: American Sniper has triggered a critical conversation about America’s veterans (generating twice the average twitter volume for films). As noted in past blogs, these veterans face major challenges during the transition from military to civilian life, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the words of Cooper, “We need to pay attention to our vets … people are coming home, and we have to take care of them”.

Thus, please consider supporting Hope for the Warriors, the Fisher House Foundation, or our partners: Give an Hour, Honoring the Path, and Still Serving Veterans.

Flickr photo credit: Mike Mozart

 

Military Non-Profit Serves Grieving Families during Shutdown

militaryLosing a loved one in battle is devastating for any military family. But from October 1 to 10, this devastation was magnified by the government shutdown. With no spending authority, the Department of Defense could not pay 29 grieving families the promised death benefits.

Usually disbursed within 24 to 36 hours of a military loss, the benefits include a 12 month housing allowance, burial benefits, and a $100,000 “death gratuity”. The gratuity aims to “help the survivors in their readjustment and aid them in meeting immediate expenses incurred”. It covers travel to receive the casket at Dover Air Force Base, the funeral, and other costs until life insurance payments arrive.

The news sparked outrage across the United States. Ami Neiberger-Miller of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors stated that “When the serviceman swears that oath that says ‘I will protect and defend,’ we make a promise back to that person that if they do die in service…we will take care of their family.” Journalist Gayle Lemmon added “Washington seems only to be taking care of itself”.

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But one non-profit turned anger into action. The Fisher House Foundation, known for providing housing to families while veterans undergo medical treatment, offered affected families a grant to cover flights, hotels, and other funeral-related costs. According to the Foundation, “our focus is on the families” – they shouldn’t be “bearing the brunt of the government shutdown”.

On October 10, Obama signed a bill into law to restore death benefits payments to families of the fallen. But the generosity and responsiveness of the Fisher House Foundation remains an inspiration. And with the potential for another shutdown in January 2014, the non-profit may soon be needed again.

To support the Fisher House Foundation, please click here. Also, please consider donating to Op4G’s partners:  Give an Hour, Honoring the Path, and Still Serving Veterans.

Flickr photo credit: Bobby Yarbrough

Remembering the Veterans of a Forgotten War

6It is sometimes easy to forget the war in Afghanistan. Now approaching its 12th year, the war receives relatively little mainstream coverage in the west. In part, this reflects changing NATO involvement in the war – in June, the military alliance transferred security operations to Afghan forces, refocusing on training, advising, and assisting. It may also reflect a growing “war fatigue” and the emergence of new hot topics like Egypt and the NSA leaks.

But as the war lingers, the last thing we should forget are the casualties. To date, over 2120 Americans have been killed and over 19000 wounded. According to a 2012 report by the Department of the Veterans Affairs (VA), 46% of those wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq have filed disability claims. Moreover, nearly 30% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans at VA hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Regrettably, many of the casualties of the Afghanistan War have yet to receive the treatments they require. As veterans pour into VA medical facilities at a rate of approximately 10,000 a month, a considerable backlog has developed. Benefits to veterans are also delayed. By 2012, 44% of post-9/11 veterans diagnosed with PTSD had not received benefits. More recently, in June 2013, 851000 veterans awaited answers on compensation claims (2/3 for longer than the government target of 125 days).

Recognizing the problem, Washington has granted every budget increase requested by the VA since 2008, raising the department’s budget by 40%. Yet, the backlogs remain – a reality likely to continue into 2014, when the US plans to withdraw remaining troops from Afghanistan. At the same time, there is growing pressure to rein in US military spending. In fact, in July 2013, the White House threatened to veto the 2014 defense appropriations bill, citing the unsustainable cost of military benefits and healthcare.

Thus, increasingly, support may need to come from outside of government. Non-profit organizations, for example, can play an instrumental role by providing health and wellness services, training, and employment placement for returning veterans. These non-profits include such Op4G partners as Give an HourStill Serving VeteransHonoring the Path, and the Travis Manion Foundation.

If you want to support our veterans, please donate or complete Op4G surveys for these non-profits today.

Flickr photo credit: The US Army