In another sign that veteran-related issues garner bipartisan support, members of the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs Committees recently held a joint hearing with both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Remarkably, after more than ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the hearing was the first time in history that the secretaries simultaneously addressed both committees.
During the hearing, committee members and the secretaries spoke about the need to improve services such as job placement and readiness, as well as access to educational benefits. However, they also noted that local communities must play a part in welcoming our men and women home.
It was noted that since 9/11, more than 50,000 men and women have been injured in service to our country. Approximately 26,000 veterans are in the process of having their disability evaluated. On average, these men and women, and their families, wait over 400 days for a determination.
What happens to these men and women during this year?
What happens to their children?
What happens when after waiting for more than a year, the answer comes back that they are not eligible for benefits, but they are unable to work at the level they once were?
No one has all the answers to these complex and difficult questions, but a critical role that local leaders can play is creating a space that allows local connections to be established with returning veterans.
Secretary Shinseki noted the important role local leaders can have connecting veterans to the best places to use their education benefits. When it comes to job training, local business leaders and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce will have a better understanding of an area’s job market. The local knowledge of and from community groups and individual community members can be the difference between success and failure for a veteran using their federal benefits.
One area that can be overlooked, but is unique in its importance, is ensuring that all exiting service members and their families have stable places to call home. If a veteran is unsure of the stability of their housing, they will be less able to continue educational opportunities or hold steady employment. To help ensure all veterans have a stable place to call home, city leaders can work to connect local VA representatives and leaders from area military installations and National Guard units with appropriate municipal staff, area non-profits, faith-based communities, landlords and other stakeholders.
At the hearing, Rep. Gibson (R-NY) mentioned his work with Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) to highlight the National Guard’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. The Yellow Ribbon Program is open for all National Guard members and reservists, regardless of service affiliation, to help navigate the many Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and state systems. When Yellow Ribbon events happen, local leadership can help bring the right partners to the table so there is an understanding of city and county resources. These singular events can become the starting place for a broader conversation about what communities can do to best support our veterans and their families in an ongoing manner.
City leaders are in a unique position to bring a community together and foster an environment where the people who interact with service members, veterans and their families, actively engage with those who provide services and/or benefits. In the face of the more than 1 million service members returning home in the coming years, more and more communities will face the choice of creating a community network to support our veterans or the costs associated with a highly skilled and driven population being disconnected with those they once proudly served.
For more information about what you can do in your community and/or examples of what other communities are doing, visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing or contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.