By Jack Fanous
For all the federal lawmakers returing to Washington this month, let me suggest a focus for your efforts: Support our troops.
After more than a decade of running a nonprofit aimed at getting veterans back to work, nearly every person I meet has expressed support for this sentiment. But looking at many of the recent policy decisions made in Washington, our returning men and women have gotten very little support compared with what they need.
Has supporting our veterans become tantamount to hand-over-heart vows at the start of a new year to lose weight or break a bad habit? Is it just a sincere good intention that is destined to go unfulfilled by the year's end?
With fewer than 1 percent of the American population on active duty, ceremony and applause too often have replaced accountability for how our returning veterans are treated and cared for by the leaders who asked them to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Just look at 2014, which was far from a banner year for our troops and veterans. The national and state unemployment rates among veterans were startlingly high. Shocking discoveries were made about the fraudulent and shameful mistreatment that veterans faced while seeking health care at Veterans Affairs facilities. A bill aimed at reducing suicide among veterans was blocked in the U.S. Senate. Because of the across-the-board budget cuts caused by sequestration, Congress passed a defense authorization bill that reduced benefits and continued to lower pay raises for troops and their families.
In response, let me suggest a short to-do list for lawmakers who truly want to support the troops.
Reintroduce and pass the Vow to Hire Heroes Act. New Jersey has the highest unemployment rate among veterans, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Labor. It was 10.8 percent as of March 2014, compared with the national rate of 6.6 percent. There is a clear and present need in New Jersey and throughout our nation to give employers - particularly small businesses - incentives to hire veterans.
The Vow Act would give employers tax credits for hiring veterans, as well as expanding GI Bill and employment benefits for returning vets. The legislation was introduced in 2011 and passed by the House with bipartisan support. It had 40 cosponsors in the Senate, but stalled in committee.
A tax break for employers could translate into a major break for a returning veteran. It's time to act on this bill and get it to President Obama's desk.
Give veterans the chance to use their skills. Business owners want to hire veterans, but often they are unable to because the vets do not appear to meet the basic education requirements for some jobs. The problem isn't that vets don't have the training needed - they've often gotten comparable education while in the service. The issue is that military training often isn't accepted as valid certification for similar fields in the civilian world. We need legislation that would ease this transition and encourage the corporate world to supplement these skills with other training programs. In the process, as we educate companies about the skills that veterans already possess, they will be easier to hire.
Remove restrictions that limit access to health care. In response to reports of veterans having excessively long waits at VA, Congress passed a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that included hiring more staff, increasing the number of facilities, and allowing veterans to receive care at a private medical site if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The bill was a positive step, but the 40-mile limit should be lifted. Give veterans the same freedom to choose their caregivers that all Americans enjoy.
This year, as we profess support for our troops and veterans, let's make sure our actions are stronger than our words. They stand ready to sacrifice everything in defense of our nation and our freedom. We must honor that commitment by providing the resources they need while on active duty and when they come home.