January 30, 2015

Veterans Seek Higher Profile in Washington

Even a hopelessly deadlocked and unproductive Congress last year managed to move legislation in support of military veterans. A bill passed late in the session was an attempt to hold Veterans Affairs officials accountable for bad performance. 

Under new Republican leadership, Congress kicked off a new legislative session also with veterans in mind, with new bills aimed at preventing suicides and creating employment opportunities for vets and reservists.

But as a deeply divided Congress goes to extraordinary lengths to show love for those who serve and their families, many veterans believe their voices have yet to be heard in Washington on a number of broader issues they care about that go beyond medical benefits and jobs. 

Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, especially, are now becoming more involved in policy advocacy in areas ranging from national security to environmental stewardship. 

“There is a restive element out there looking to get back in the game,” says retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, a long-time critic of U.S. defense policy and now an executive at Vet Voice Foundation, a progressive group that promotes environmental conservation and a non-military approach to foreign policy.

Returning vets tend to be pigeonholed, perhaps unfairly, as victims of post-combat stress who have difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. Eaton says those problems are real, although far from the only causes veterans champion. Most vets affiliated with his group, Eaton says, bring an untapped source of political energy that, if unleashed, could influence policies of concern to the nation at large. “There is an opportunity to harness these men and women and bring their voices to bear on problems that need to be solved in the United States.”

Eaton has been an adviser to VoteVets.org, a group that has helped elect progressive veterans to Congress. Having vets in elected office is helpful, he says, but not essential because Congress generally feels a moral obligation toward those who served. 

Veterans would like to see more action taken on major national security challenges, says Eaton. Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly emphatic about the need to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy and shift resources to other tools of national power such as diplomacy and economic engagement. “The Defense Department has 535 advocates on Capitol Hill. But the State Department is an orphan,” Eaton says. “Vets would be thrilled to see economic or diplomatic solutions before we rush to war.”

The nation’s predisposition to use the military to solve just about every foreign policy problem is understandable given the resources the Defense Department has. Shifting the balance of power has been a perennial fruitless battle, but veterans can lend a credible perspective to this debate, he says. “We need to motivate the other agencies to get in there with diplomatic and economic power to solve foreign policy issues. As a nation, we are not well trained and equipped to deploy nonmilitary expertise.”

Veterans also can be effective spokesmen on energy and environmental concerns. “Before vets got involved in green energy there wasn’t much talk about the security angle of renewables,” Eaton says. “Even Republicans who want to drill for more oil have couched energy as a national security issue.” Vet Voice is now actively involved in conservation battles, fighting local governments that want to develop public lands. Veterans, many of whom are avid outdoorsmen, have argued that public lands should be off limits. 

In a different slice of the political spectrum are groups like Concerned Veterans of America, which has pushed for sweeping reforms at Veterans Affairs and also espoused typically unpopular causes like changes to military reitrement and reductions in spending on mandatory benefits to help pay for military modernization. 

“We are not just fighting for benefits, but also for America’s freedom and prosperity,” says CVA chief executive Pete Hegseth. A key priority for the organization is to persuade Congress to allow vets to get care at private hospitals if they so choose. “The VA is a shining example of government gone wrong,” he says. “Reforms should go deeper. Veterans should have more options.” 

Sacrosanct programs like military retirement benefits also should be challenged, Hegseth says. Many veterans who serve less than 20 years believe the current retirement system is unfair. “Someone who served 12 years in combat gets nothing while someone who worked at the Pentagon for 20 years and never went to combat gets full pension. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing.”

He sees a need for more veterans’ involvement in the national security conversation. “We are well positioned to articulate the need for American strength and leadership … and for fiscal responsibility.” CVA appreciates efforts by Congress and the White House to prod more federal agencies and corporations to hire veterans, but cautions these programs might perpetuate the stereotype of unemployed vets.

“You always have to be careful to not reinforce stigmas,” says Hegseth. “When we talk about unemployment, suicides and post-traumatic stress, we have to ensure we are not creating a caricature of veterans as broken vessels and ticking time bombs.” His pitch to companies: You should hire a veteran to improve your bottom line. It shouldn’t be about charity. “We don’t think government should have to spend on hiring programs.”

Veterans often are labeled as pro-war or anti-war, but their stance is not so cut and dry. “We want a coherent foreign policy. It doesn’t mean more wars,” he says. “You can be judicious but unapologetic about American leadership being a good thing.”

It might be too soon to predict how effective vet groups’ advocacy will be in shaping the national agenda. Eaton is optimistic. “When veterans get involved in these policy arguments, it’s with a very unique perspective of people who have been to war.” Generally when people talk about rolling back the spread of nuclear weapons, they are seen as peace activists. “When vets get involved, we can’t pin them in that sort of way.”

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