After Election Day, veterans will still be looking for answers

Darin Selnick VA Advisor, Concerned Veterans For America
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For U.S. military veterans closely following the 2012 presidential campaign, it is seriously disappointing that veterans’ issues have played so small a role in this year’s race.

Poor performance at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leading to rampant waste and a historic claims backlog? That didn’t merit a mention in any of the debates. High unemployment among post-9/11 veterans? Also off the campaign radar.

That’s a shame, because the 22 million veterans of the armed services comprise a large and significant voting bloc. When the dust clears after Election Day, the next administration and Congress will need to make a priority of addressing key veterans’ issues like the economy, unemployment and problems at the VA. Yet veterans don’t feel like they’re being heard.

I know this firsthand, having spent the last week traveling with Concerned Veterans for America on a bus tour through several states along the Atlantic seaboard. I spoke with scores of men and women who are deeply concerned about the direction of the economy, the $16 trillion national debt and the treatment our veterans are receiving upon returning home.

One thing that became clear to me: veterans are exasperated with the status quo, and they’re looking for real reform in the areas of government spending and performance.

For example, veterans would likely respond enthusiastically to an agenda that laid out much-needed VA reforms. The VA’s culture of dysfunction runs deep, and it reveals itself in the shamefully poor service provided to our veterans. Currently, the VA is facing a backlog of more than 890,000 claims for veterans’ benefits — in spite of the fact that the department has enjoyed large boosts in budget and personnel over the last four years.

Indeed, the VA is now the second largest federal department, yet is still unable to deliver on its basic mission of service to veterans. Tales of waste and incompetence, like the VA inspector general report that revealed how the department squandered millions on training conferences in Florida, are legendary. The next president will need to roll up his sleeves and demand fresh, effective leadership at this historically troubled department.

Vets are also troubled by the high rate of joblessness for veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly among younger veterans. In September, the 9.7 percent jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans was almost two points higher than the rate for the general population. In surveys, veterans have cited the job search as one of the most difficult challenges they face in returning to the civilian sector. It’s a problem that will only grow more acute as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan winds down and more veterans return home.

In recent years, our leaders in Washington have pitched a series of temporary tax credits and special hiring initiatives aimed at getting veterans back into the workforce; these programs have, predictably, underperformed. Again, these temporary and targeted programs may be well intended, but their ineffectiveness represents yet another failure of status quo thinking. What’s needed is an agenda of pro-growth policies, restrained spending and limited government — proven strategies for getting the economy moving.

But we shouldn’t just wait for the next administration or the next Congress to take up our issues; veterans of all ages must make their voices heard in letting our leaders know that we expect them to look to the needs of our brothers and sisters. Those of us who work in the field of veterans’ advocacy, as I do with Concerned Veterans for America, must be prepared to hold the next administration accountable for responding to the needs of veterans.

Regardless of who wins on November 6 — and as I write this, it appears the race will go right down to the wire — veterans are still going to be deeply concerned about these issues. It’s up to the next administration to develop and implement a real veterans’ agenda that speaks to this critical population, with effectiveness and commitment.

Darin Selnick, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is an independent consultant and a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s organizing committee.