Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my time in the military police, during the Iraq War. Like many American veterans, my service in the armed forces is a defining moment in my life.
Thankfully, veteran households in this country continue to have higher standards of living than non-veteran households. For this we should all be grateful.
However, we must not forget that many veterans struggle after their service. This includes financial problems like homelessness and others issues like addiction and physical and mental health conditions. Just this week, I was saddened to read of the suicide of Master Sgt. Andrew Christian Marckesano – nicknamed “Captain America” – who served six full tours in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne and the Ranger regiment and a half dozen more combat tours.
Stars and Stripes recently reported: “Between 2005 and 2017, 78,875 veterans took their own lives, according to the most recent data from the VA.”
I myself struggle from respiratory issues from my time in Iraq, as do many others who served there and in Afghanistan. Sometimes I break out in coughing fits, and it is a scary sensation that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Because of this breathing condition, it is essential that I live and sleep in a home that is air conditioned during the warmer months.
Which brings me to why I am penning this op-ed: Congress must address the growing number of veterans (and Americans) who are struggling from the pandemic and need help paying their electric bills this summer as our economy cools and temperatures rise. Most importantly, Republican senators who control the destiny of the next COVID-19 relief package must address the serious matter of utility payments
Thankfully, there is a program for Americans struggling to pay their home cooling bills, called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP (pronounced lie-heap). LIHEAP can be immediately used to help people, including veterans, who are running out of money to pay their electric bills.
On March 27, the president signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that included $900 million for LIHEAP to help low-income households pay their utility bills during the crisis. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), the primary educational and policy organization for the state directors of the LIHEAP program, estimates the $900 million will help approximately three million families.
However, state LIHEAP directors urgently need an additional funding of $4.3 billion to help the millions more households that continue to suffer economic hardships from the pandemic. NAEDA also found that the additional funds will allow LIHEAP to support nearly 11.2 million households. This NAEDA estimate demonstrates that the additional $1.5 billion included in the latest pandemic relief package known as the HEROES Act, passed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives, is not adequate.
Also, NEADA’s estimate of need assumes an average grant of $325 to cover home energy costs for four months, plus $300 to provide window or room air conditioners for elderly and medically vulnerable households to ensure their houses stay at a safe temperature while they are sheltering in place during the pandemic.
Lastly, one reason expanding LIHEAP is critical for veterans is because the federal government believes that about 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in America. One of the best ways to escape homelessness are government housing programs. But many those programs require that participants pay all of their debts. Many homeless veterans are put back on the streets because they cannot pay their electric bills.
Across the nation, moratoria for non-payment of utilities were put in place to help people cope with the pandemic. But these moratoria are expiring, and something needs to be done to ensure veterans can afford to pay their electric bills. Therefore, I am urging Republican leadership in the Senate to ensure the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation includes $4.3 billion for LIHEAP. Congress simply must get it done, especially for the men and women who fought for our nation and now need our support.
Neiweem, a veteran of the Second Iraq War, is the Director of the American Veterans Policy Network