American Legion Post 642 (Stevens Creek) Cupertino, California

American Legion News

Tuition assistance program for servicemembers needs more funding, more awareness as recruiting tool

The American Legion supports an increase in the financial aid provided through the Department of Defense's Tuition Assistance (TA) program. Members of the Veterans Employment & Education Commission were encouraged to share that support with their legislators — as well as help raise awareness of the benefit — during a panel discussion on Feb. 26 at the Washington Conference.

"I think it's really important when you talk about this issue (to legislators), which is providing dollars for education or training, that they take the policy but don't dictate the practice. For the longest time, for some reason, virtual education has been associated with poor quality. We're taking that back," said Meg O'Grady, senior vice president for military and government programs at National University.

The TA program provides financial assistance to active-duty servicemembers as they pursue voluntary education programs, but the aid is capped at $250 per credit hour and $4,500 per year. Those numbers haven't changed since 2002.

That limit in financial assistance affects how long it takes for servicemembers to get a degree.

"That $4,500 a year, if maximized, would (take) seven years to get an associate degree," O'Grady said.

In turn, that can force servicemembers to use other avenues to pay for education that they shouldn't need to rely on. "We should not be seeing our servicemembers taking on student loans unless they're getting grants," said Esmeralda Silva, vice president for student affairs at Alliant International University.

The added years it would take to get a degree using only the TA program can also effectively make earlier learning obsolete.

"We know that if you started 12 years ago under that (STEM degree) curriculum, that's not where that industry is any more," said Angela Albritton, director of military relations and strategic initiatives at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Those STEM degrees are expensive, and if we're looking at having the same business model to pay for those STEM degrees from 20 years ago, doing it now, we can all see there's a gap here."

The caps are also having a negative influence on the number of universities who accept active-duty servicemembers into their programs.

Silva said that the last time the Department of Defense memorandum of understanding governing the TA program was updated "there were 5,000 universities that signed that MOU to say that they would support active duty utilizing tuition assistance. … There's less than 1,100 universities (now) that will continue to support that. So we're also seeing that decline.

"One of our members, Central Texas College, the largest community college serving military students in this nation, is pulling out because they cannot sustain with the caps and continue to provide educational services at the cost point with the TA cap right now. Faculty in some of these programs are extremely expensive, and if you're going to bring in faculty that are the top tier to teach in some of these areas, it's critical. And so when you see our community colleges pulling out, there's a crisis happening. It's just not adding up," Silva added.

Panelists also noted that the TA program is a benefit that isn't publicized well enough, which can have an impact on recruiting in general.

"Less than 20 percent of our servicemembers utilize tuition assistance every year. … It is still an underutilized benefit to our servicemembers," Silva said.

"We want to really emphasize that this is a wanted benefit and yet the awareness isn't there that the benefit is available to them," O'Grady said.

Panelists address homelessness, mental health and more at Washington Conference

Whether it's working with other organizations in the community to find help for a homeless veteran, or building a relationship between a veteran with PTSD and a therapy horse, relationships are key.

That ended up as an important takeaway from the panel discussions during the Veterans Employment & Education meeting on Feb. 26 at The American Legion's annual Washington Conference.

"Connect with your community partners; know who's in your area. Know who's good. Know who's bad. Know who you can depend on. You have to do that to make sure you're serving those veterans," said Clifton Lewis, former executive director of U.S. Vets and one of the panelists discussing homeless awareness and prevention among veterans.

"Many of our clients struggle with connecting socially," said Emma Hertzberg, an EAGALA-certified equine specialist at Lifeline Equine Therapy Services and a panelist discussing mental health and wellness. "Horses can teach us what true connection looks like."

Homeless awareness and prevention. Panelists discussing homeless awareness and prevention noted the importance of working with other agencies and organizations to face the issue.

"I think there has to be interaction not just between the VA and agencies like HUD or Labor, but with your city council, your board of supervisors, other folks in the community because federal agencies alone can't deal with the issue," said moderator Mark Walker, deputy director of Swords to Plowshares.

"When I was doing outreach 20 years ago, it was street outreach. You went out, you found a vet and you brought him in," Lewis said. "Now it's changed where you have to connect with the community partners. You have to have strong relationships with each community partner in the community and make sure that if any veteran falls into homelessness at any point in time from any of those agencies that you work with, they will refer him to you. But there's a catch: you've got to respond. You've got to follow up. You've got to do your job."

Panelists said it's important to share details of the services their agencies provide. Maria Temiquel, director of grants and training, Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service, encouraged American Legion posts to bring her agency and others into post meetings.

"So at your post, if you bring together your members and you have folks from the VA, folks from Labor, folks from other organizations, we can do a presentation. We want to share our services with as many eligible posts as possible," Temiquel said.

Danielle Applegate, chair of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans as well as a Legion and Auxiliary member at Post 139 in Arlington, Va., encouraged those in attendance to tell their legislators to support the Charge Act. The legislation — supported by The American Legion — would resume increased per-diem rates VA is authorized to pay state veterans homes to house homeless veterans, among other actions.

"I'll probably be the only person to tell you that COVID was really great for homelessness, and you know why? It unlocked a lot of money," Applegate said. "In May, they took all that money away."

Mental health and wellness. The morning's second panel discussion focused on mental health and wellness but touched on some of the same concerns as the homeless awareness and prevention panel.

In discussing some of the recent research by the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute, co-director Rajeev Ramchand noted that "it's pretty well-known that it's more expensive to house veterans who have become unhoused than it is to prevent them from becoming unhoused."

"How can we identify veterans who are on the cusp of becoming unhoused? Usually the way that we think about that is, people who are spending 50 percent or more of their household income on housing expenses, those are the ones who are kind of one paycheck away from losing their house. So who are those individuals and how can we intervene more effectively so they don't lose their houses?" Ramchand added.

Homelessness is one of the stressors that can affect a veteran's mental health and wellness. Others include finding purpose after service and connecting socially.

"In the military, it's really easy to have purpose-job-mission-camaraderie-teamwork. When you transition out, everyone has a bit of a different landing," said Waco Hoover, chair of the Legion's Be The One program. "We don't spend enough time talking about purpose and how we find it. Some people may never find purpose or give a crap … about your job. That may not fill your cup, and that's ok; find it somewhere else."

Hertzberg noted that equine therapy can provide a model for veterans and others struggling to make connections.

"One of the really amazing things about horses is that these are community-seeking animals. A sense of community is essential to their ability to survive in nature," Hertzberg said. "When we have veterans and clients interacting with horses, watching horses, we have models who can teach us how to show up authentically and also how to create the kinds of social experiences we want."

But while there's no shortage of anecdotes about how trauma during military service can affect veterans, Suzi Landolphi, whole health clinical director for Merging Vets and Players, said there's plenty of evidence of trauma before military service making a greater impact.

"Among servicemembers and veterans who attempted suicide, approximately 50 percent have thought about committing suicide and 25 percent have attempted it before joining the military," Landolphi said. "Why didn't they tell you that when they signed up? Because if they did, you wouldn't let them in.

"… When you deal with people who have not only had trauma in the military, you've got to find out what they brought in. And you have to be absolutely kind and open-hearted to let them tell you," Landolphi added, suggesting that basic training could include the opportunity for new servicemembers to discuss their pre-military trauma.

Hoover added, "Over two-thirds of servicemembers who go into the military come in with some kind of preexisting trauma," per a University of Utah study. "It further reinforces why we need to rethink mental health care, and one of the most impactful ways that we can serve veterans is to think about what the military experience is start to finish."

VA leadership address suicide prevention, safeguarding veterans benefits, claims appeals

Veteran suicide prevention and safeguarding veteran benefits are two priorities of The American Legion's legislative agenda for the second session of the 118th Congress. Those priorities and other concerns were addressed with members of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Commission during a panel discussion that included Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leadership. The discussion was held Feb. 26 during the Legion's Washington Conference and moderated by VA&R Commission Chairman Autrey James.

James asked questions to the VA staff that were submitted previously by American Legion members from several departments.

Dr. Steve Lieberman, Deputy Under Secretary for Health with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), was asked what research VHA was conducting on emerging therapies to help veterans with PTSD and depression.

"Suicide is our number one clinical priority in Veterans Health Administration. And VA is the leader in this country, I would say in the world, in research in suicide prevention related to depression, related to PTSD, related to many other factors," Lieberman said.

More than 16,000 veterans nationwide, who have been identified as an increased risk for suicide, have participated in telehealth calls with mental health trained specialists. Lieberman said initial findings show that the calls improved suicide-related coping, quality of life, and reduction in depression symptoms and hopelessness. "That is really showing promise."

And while the use of psychedelics to help with depression, PTSD and risk factors for suicide are garnering attention, "The studies that have been done are unfortunately very small, and don't adequately address whether they really work and whether they are safe to use," Lieberman said. "VA is preparing to sponsor a grant process to study (psychedelics) and study this intensively. We will have proposals come in, we will reward those proposals, and then we will do research and get the answers and hopefully find that it's helpful."

Lieberman also reminded commission members to share with veterans that under the COMPACT Act, veterans in acute suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for emergency health care at no cost – including inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days. Veterans do not need to be enrolled in the VA system to use this benefit.

The American Legion urges Congress to pass legislation to restore criminal penalties for persons or companies that represent or charge veterans fees to file; prepare or prosecute initial VA claims without VA accreditation; and to oppose any legislation that would allow unaccredited parties to become legal representatives without completing the accreditation process. Chairman James asked Michael Frueh, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), what the VA is doing to safeguard veterans benefits and assist veterans from being taken advantage of by unaccredited claims companies.

"We decided 2 million claims last year, a record for us," Frueh said, with 1.6 million veterans awarded new benefits at an average claim amount was $2,000. "That adds up to $12.2 billion if every veteran last year hired a claims consultant, it would have gone to them. It's a lot money, and I don't think the work is justified. Especially as Congress set up our process as a process where we are supposed to provide a duty to assist. You know what it's like to train your service officers. How would you like to hear someone say, ‘For half of your benefit payment, we can help you get it faster?' They can't help get it faster. We have a million veterans in que waiting to get decided."

The VA set up Veteran Scam and Fraud Evasion (VSAFE) that focuses on protecting veterans and their families from scams and to make them aware of the free services they have from people who are accredited. Frueh encouraged VA&R Commission members to "advocate for legislation that strengthens accreditation and strengthens the ability to go after bad actors. It's illegal to charge for an initial claim, and they do. We would love it if someone would do something about it. It's illegal to represent someone unless you are accredited. Do something about the accreditation."

Jaime A. Areizaga-Soto, chairman of the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), was pleased to announce that the board has recently hired over 40 new judges, going from 90 to now 133. And that 57% of the current board are women and 24% are veterans. "The current board is not only the largest, but the best and most diverse board of judges in our history," he said. Legionnaires wanted to know how the BVA is addressing the time it takes for a hearing and decisions on legacy appeals.

In 2022, the BVA did 30,000 legacy hearings. Currently, BVA's number of legacy hearings pending are right above 1,000, Areizaga-Soto said. "That is great news. We are pretty much almost done with the legacy hearing side," adding that the 73,000 hearings pending are all AMA (Appeals Modernization Act). "We continue to schedule, there isn't any delay. And we have not seen an increase in our appeals as a result of the PACT Act and the work of the VBA.

"I asked that during my time (as chairman) that we did not want a lag time between the hearing and the decision, and that I preferred the decision be issued by the same judge that does the hearing. Overall, for the second year in a row, our hearing inventory went down. We are on the right track. My goal is to get more decisions. My commitment to you this year is that we will do 111,000 decisions."

Frueh added that a record was set last year in the number of claims filed – 2.6 million, a 40% increase over 2022. The claims backlog is 380,000 with VBA's goal to get it back down to 100,000. "We are focused on getting as many claims done as we can," noting that about 75% of VBA's daily output are older claims. "We are focused every day on backlogs. We are super focused on not making veterans wait."

Retired Maj. Gen. Matthew T. Quinn, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs at the National Cemetery Administration, addressed the VA plaque and urn issue that has been in the news.

In 2020, Congress passed a law that requires the VA to provide the surviving spouse or the widow of a veteran, or widower, a plaque or urn upon request. The law also states that if the widow or widower accepts a plaque or urn, the veteran is no longer eligible for internment in a national VA cemetery, nor is the veteran able to receive a government furnished headstone if they opt to be buried in a private cemetery.

"VA has done nothing but to follow the law. We are working with Congress to try to see what's the best fix for that," Quinn said, encouraging commission members that if they want the law changed, to begin advocacy efforts. Chairman James commented that it sounds like a possible resolution from an American Legion department.

Quinn also encouraged Legionnaires to pre-apply for VA burial benefits in a national or grant-funded cemetery. "We are asking veterans to apply, it doesn't commit you to using a national cemetery, but apply for pre-need eligibility. We will build the case for you, and we will have that as a record so that down the road when the funeral home calls or the family calls (asking about eligibility), we will be able to pull it right up."  

 

 

At stake for veterans: national security, U.S. economy

Cybersecurity, as an industry sector, has over 1 million job openings across America. Many are tailor-made for trained U.S. military veterans who may or may not know they are qualified or where to look for career entry points.

Task Force Movement (TFM) explored the challenges – and opportunities – of connecting the dots between military experience, education, certification, industry and government support in a Tuesday breakout session on cybersecurity hosted by The American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Commission as part of the 64th Washington Conference in the nation's capital. The American Legion has a seat on the steering committee of the task force, established by the White House in April 2022.

TFM initially focused on the nation's shortage of more than 80,000 commercial truck drivers, an issue that came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic and supply-chain breakdowns of that time. At The American Legion's 103rd National Convention in Milwaukee in 2022, cybersecurity was added to the areas of the economy where veterans can be fast-tracked to fill critical gaps. And at the 104th National Convention in Charlotte last year, health care – with a labor shortage estimated at over 2 million – became the third portal.

All three areas received attention from TFM during the Washington Conference Monday and Tuesday. And not just because the economy has jobs to fill. "It's a major national security concern – huge," said Jack Dever, TFM's cybersecurity chairman. "There's a dearth of cyber talent right now."

TFM Chairman and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, first veteran from the war in Iraq elected to Congress, emphasizes the national security aspect of TFM's mission to get more purpose-driven veterans certified quicker, and more efficiently, in specialized careers.

When a member of the U.S. Armed Forces is discharged, Murphy explained to the Legion's Veterans Employment & Education Commission in a Monday panel discussion, "They are Marines for life. They are soldiers for life. They are sailors for life. They are Guardians for life. Airmen for life. We have to make sure they understand they are civic assets to this nation … That's why Task Force Movement is so incredibly important … to make sure that our veterans understand the opportunities that are out there to meet our country's challenges."

TFM has worked to bring together often-siloed stakeholders in the transition-assistance landscape.

TFM Treasurer Brandon McPherson told Legionnaires that a key point of the task force when it was created was breaking down those silos. "When we first started Task Force Movement, there were three things we wanted to do, and a couple of things we didn't want to do," he said at the Monday panel discussion. "One was, we wanted to be about action. Two, we wanted to ensure that we weren't being duplicative; if there's something that already exists somewhere that's working well, let's leave that to those organizations. Three is, we said we wanted to be an organization that linked and brought people together and found opportunities for private sector, government, etc., to do what they do best."

The shortage of cybersecurity professionals in America has risen as an international security concern in recent years as potential adversaries like China are educating and employing a new generation where the lines between military and commercial interests are blurred, Murphy told the Legionnaires.

Meg O'Grady, senior vice president of military affairs for nonprofit National University – with seven colleges across the country and about 50,000 students, about 30% of whom are military-connected – was at the Tuesday session to share how her school is making progress on that front for veterans. "We want to be a capacity builder," she said, noting that National University has risen to the top five nationwide in cybersecurity among institutions of higher education, working with such industry giants as Amazon and building certification preparation into the curriculum.

Relationships with industry, government, labor, academia and others cultivate connections that lead to scholarship and apprenticeship funds for transitioning veterans entering specialized careers – more than $10 million in scholarships for TFM's trucking initiative – and increasing assistance for veterans in cybersecurity.

 "We know that we've got work shortages across a lot of different domains within the United States economy," TFM Board Co-Chairman Dan Kunze said. "We also know that for quite a while, we outsourced a lot of that … to other nations to support our commercial technology… We offshored a lot. What we're learning now is that it's a national security imperative for us to train, develop and cultivate our own workforce. What better place to do that than in transitioning servicemembers?"

Elizabeth Belcaster, executive director of TFM, put the equation simply after her flight to Washington was delayed due to a shortage of air-traffic controllers in Chicago: "It is just a fact of life … There are more jobs than there are workers, and we must engage with those who are already skilled up from the military and bring them into these spaces, especially the areas that are specific to our national security and our economy."

 

 

How VA is leveraging innovation to Be the One

Members of The American Legion's Veterans Affairs & Commission heard how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is addressing veteran suicide, a top priority of The American Legion's, through innovation.

Matthew Rowley, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq war and community builder for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning (OHIL), addressed the commission Feb. 26 during the Legion's 64th Washington Conference. He provided a few examples of where VA is using innovation to prevent veteran suicide that aligns with the Legion's Be the One mission.

VHA OHIL has a program called Senior Innovation Fellows where "we find our best and brightest VA innovators, and we support them for a year while they work on an innovation project," Rowley said. There are two current projects that relate to social connection, "very much like what Be the One is doing to prevent and end veteran suicides."

One of the projects is Compassionate Compact Corps, which pairs trained volunteers with veterans experiencing social isolation and loneliness for weekly phone calls. Since 2021, there have been 13,000 support calls.

"Over 80 percent of the (VA) veteran patients who were experiencing isolation felt that compassionate contact, or that weekly call, decreased their social isolation and loneliness," Rowley said. "Over 80 percent of the volunteers said, ‘This has improved my quality of life as well.' Just like Be the One, that is good for the person that you are reaching out to, it's also good for your heart."

The other project is veteran socials that are community-based events that foster interpersonal connections and social support among veterans and community members. Rowley said there are four Legion posts in Massachusetts that hold veteran socials and encourage others to do the same by connecting with your VA. And there's Mission Daybreak, a VA challenge launched in 2022 that awarded $20 million to suicide prevention solutions to meet the diverse needs of veterans. The competition resulted in 1,300 submissions and 10 finalists. See the finalists.

"What I love so much about the Be the One (mission) is that it's not just suicide prevention, it's person-to-person, social connection, as a means to prevent suicide. It's person-to-person. That means a lot to me," added Rowley, who has lost friends to suicide, including a close one last month. "Be the One is a fantastic mission."

Along with suicide prevention and social connectiveness efforts, Rowley spoke of what the VA is doing to push health care forward for veterans by developing processes and products that will make health care better. As a result of VA innovation, providers now have the ability to take CT scans of a veteran going into surgery and create a 3-D life-size model of their anatomy that the provider will use to plan for the surgery and explain to the veteran what exactly will happen in surgery.

"This is the future of veteran care," Rowley said. "This is the office of advanced manufacturing. We are really excited to expand these offerings throughout VA."

A pilot program currently going on at all VA medical centers upon request by the patient is Pharmacogenomics (PGx) – a blood test that studies how genetic variations affect individual responses to medications, like chemo treatment or cholesterol medicine. "We find out ahead of time (how a veteran will respond to medication) so we don't put veterans at risk," Rowley said, noting that there are 200,000 tests left until the pilot funds run out. "Talk to your provider and let your fellow veterans know about this. On a larger scale, if this is something you would like to see VA continue, your voice needs to be heard. Because there is no guarantee that this will exists after those 200,000 tests."

American Legion members can visit the VHA OHIL marketplace to see the many innovations underway.  

"A big part of what we do is making sure we have that voice of the veteran," Rowley said. "The easiest way to get involved in VA innovation is to check out what's going on at the local level. There are 44 facilities with VA innovation specialists. Each one has projects being developed by frontline employees at the facility and they want veteran input."

Rowley encouraged American Legion members to reach out to veterans not currently enrolled in the VA health-care system to highlight VA's innovations and that innovation is driven by veteran input.  

"VA wants to be the provider of choice now, 10, 20, 30 years from now. We need to be reaching those veterans out in the community. And that is where the partnership with The American Legion is so important to what we're doing. Your role in strengthening VA care is absolutely critical."

Continuing with innovation and technology, commission members heard from Eugene Luskin, CEO of SyncMD – a free app that collects, stores and shares your medical records. SyncMD started in 2015 by former Microsoft employees and health-care providers.

"We entered the market with a personal health record solution that allows patients to securely collect, store and share their medical records anywhere, with anyone," Luskin said. "Today, we are used across the United States by many patients, providers, hospitals, strategic partners and veteran nursing homes."

SyncMD just completed integration with the VA to allow veterans to pull their records easily and securely from VA.

Users can visit syncmd.com to download the app onto their smartphones and begin requesting records from their provider, whether they receive care from or outside the VA.

Today, patients are using the app to retrieve their health records from the VA and, soon, the ability to confirm their service history and eligibility. Luskin said the app is a great tool when veterans are working with accredited service officers like The American Legion to file a claim and have access to their entire medical history.

"It's effectively an electronic health world that allows veterans, patients, to collect their records from any sources and create a true 360-degree view of the patient. And it exceeds government requirements for securing health information," Luskin said.

Senate, House VA committee staffers brief Legion on variety of issues

Members of The American Legion's Legislation Commission were provided an overview of legislation of importance to both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs by those working the legislation on an almost daily basis – staff from each committee.

During a panel that included staff from both the majority and minority from both committees, topics included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health records modernization, education benefits, expanded access to community care, VA staffing and the need for the committees to hear directly from veterans. The discussion took place Feb. 26 during the Legion's Washington Conference in the nation's capital.

Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs (SVAC) Majority Counsel Billy Van Saun said that one area of concern to Committee Chairman Jon Tester is veterans getting the care they need in rural states like Montana.

"Obviously being from a rural state, veterans' access to clinics, transportation for rural veterans to get to the VA is something we are continuing to work on," Van Saun said. "For the last couple years, we've tried a couple options, and it's not an easy solution, but we're going to continue to find a way to get veterans to the care that they need at the (locations) they want to."

A member of the American Legion Department of New York, Van Saun said Legionnaires building relationships with members of Congress and their staff is an important piece in delivering legislation that benefits veterans.

"Every time I go home to Northern New York I stop in (to my Legion post). My wife is from Seattle, and every time I go to Seattle, I stop in the local Legion post there to talk to the guys that are hanging out in the post and listen to them. I would love to have those conversations come to the Hill. I love to hear about how people are getting to VA, their experience at the VA, their issues with applying for benefits or using accredited agents or attorneys. Those are the relationships that I'd like to see of more on the Hill. Those conversations about the personal experiences they're having with VA."

Hunter Thompson, a Minority staffer with the SVAC, talked about the American Legion-supported Veterans' Health Empowerment, Access, Leadership, and Transparency for our Heroes (HEALTH) Act, which was co-introduced by SVAC Ranking Member Jerry Moran. The legislation aims to protect and expand access to care for veterans, safeguard veterans' ability to choose their own providers and require VA to improve the quality of care veterans receive.

"We want to ensure that the community care program works for veterans and allows them to get the care they need in their communities, specifically as it pertains to residential rehabilitation services," Thompson said. "We often see veterans that have to travel far too many miles, hours of travel, to receive the care that they need.

"On top of that, having VA look at a value-based care model, something that is both precision and very patient-focused. Focused on the outcomes, not just the inputs. Looking at ways for VA to incentivize providers, especially in the mental health-care space, yielding good outcomes that are very particular and veteran-focused."

Thompson said oversight is an important area this year. "Over the past few years, VA has made a number of great strides in bringing on last year over 60,000 new employers into the system," he said. "This year, they've positioned themselves as saying, ‘OK, we're ready with a full-staffed workforce to fulfill the mission of VA'.  

"However, oftentimes we go to facilities across the country, and they tell us, ‘We still need more employees in order to provide that access and care that veterans deserve. So, through this year, we want to see what VA's going to be able to do, in their words, to be more efficient and have more patients coming through the VA system. But how are they going to do that if we still hear that there are shortages in the workforce across the system?"

Thompson added that his committee often hears from organizations like the Legion from the national level. "However, I always find that a lot of the issues we end up really hyper-focusing on are when we hear from the local folks," he said. "There's so many issues that are happening at the local level that never make their way up to us, unless they're brought to us.

"So, I think that the biggest things are, obviously, being sharp on what are the legislative needs and what are the fixes. But be able to show here's the impact it's having in the community with these veterans."

Katy Flynn, Majority General Counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC), urged the meeting's attendees to reach out to their members of Congress on critical issues because, "it's how we learn what the needs are on the ground. It's really vital for you all to continue that advocacy and to get to know your Congresspeople, because they come to us with everything you reach out to them with."

Flynn touched on a few issues and pieces of legislation the committee is monitoring, include sexual harassment claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); VA accountability and the VA home loan program; access to care at both VA facilities and through community providers, including mental health care and substance abuse rehabilitation; and improved education benefits – including the VET–TEC Authorization Act of 2023, which permanently funds the Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses program for veterans seeking job training in high-tech industries. The legislation has passed in the House.

"The pilot program was a huge success, with an 84-percent graduation rate and an average starting salary of over $66,000," said Flynn. "We feel really good about that program."

Ally Cimino, HVAC Minority Staff Director, Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee and Deputy General Counsel, said one of Ranking Member Rep. Mark Takano's biggest priorities for this session of Congress is The Elizabeth Dole Home Care Act, which will allow veterans to age at home if they choose while giving their caregivers the support they need to honor the veterans' wishes.

She also spent some time talking about veteran homelessness, which she called, "the amalgamation of every part of the system that's not working. Whether a veteran can't access their GI Bill benefits. Whether they can't access health care. Whether they can't access mental health treatment. Substance use treatment. All of these things add up and cause someone to potentially experience housing insecurity. And in the worst case, homelessness."

Cimino said she is hoping for passage of the Housing Our Military Veterans Effectively (HOME) Act, which she said, "gives VA some of the flexibility they need to meet veterans exactly where they are and get them housed."  

During the panel Cimino asked John Harry, the HVAC Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, to give his insights on VA's Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM), which was paused in September 2023 after reports of veteran harm and deaths in Spokane, Wash., and elsewhere. It carries a price tag of $16 billion. "We're still in a place where success is possible," Harry said. "VA about six months ago appointed new leadership for this program, and they're by far the most competent and qualified leadership we've seen in the program in the last five years.

"Success is still possible. It's a big bureaucracy. It takes a long time to turn the ship. I think they're going to get there."

Harry said VA's current records system, VistA, was built by VA for VA and by doctors for doctors. "So, it's a system that they love," he said. "The problem is it's a 40-year-old system. Cybersecurity was not a big thing back then, so it's not something they can manage now. They way it was built, it's basically sort of duct-taped together, and every VA has a different version of VistA, so they don't communicate well with each other. And they really don't communicate well with the rest of health care.

"We are still determined that a modern EHR is the right solution, whether it's the one that they've contracted with or a different one. Where we're at is just trying to help VA get themselves together so that they can be as successful as possible."

Also during the commission meeting, the National Legislative Council presented its Member of the Year Award to California Legionnaire Manny Vega. A member of American Legion Post 731 in San Diego, Vega participated in all 23 of the Legion's 2023 advocacy campaigns while reporting 15 members with his members of Congress.

"That is what success is about," National Legislative Council Chairman Rick Oertel said. "Doing that job. Making sure you have that rapport. Making sure you're making those meetings. And when you get that legislative alert, you're responding to those immediately."

Alaska was named the council's Department of the Year for having the highest percentage of activists connected with Congress in the Legion.

VA secretary: Department taking several steps to deter claim sharks 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough used The American Legion's Washington Conference to issue a stern warning to individuals or companies that attempt to file VA benefits claims on behalf of veterans but don't have VA accreditation.

Speaking during the Legion's Commander's Call on Feb. 26, McDonough noted that while unaccredited predatory claims companies are not bound by VA regulations and cannot be penalized by the Office of General Counsel, there are still steps VA can take to thwart their efforts.

"When we see predatory companies, bad actors, including non-accredited actors taking advantage of veterans, we're doing everything we can under the current law," McDonough said. "You know that the criminal penalties associated with the statute have been removed. But we can still name and shame. So, when we see a bad actor, we communicate with them to cease and desist. And then we publish that actor's name, so as to deter veterans from going to those actors.

"We have now stood up a full interagency team within the administration, using all of the enforcement authority that we have at places like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Treasury, the Consumer Finance Protection Corporation, to make sure that we are using all of those enforcement authorities to name and shame, but to also protect vets whose assets may have been attached or to bring additional regulatory action against the bad actors."

But McDonough said that VA also has to "get better and more timely about providing claims answers. "Because when veterans feel like they're getting a fair shake, they won't like they need to go somewhere else."

McDonough said VA urges veterans to go to its partners like The American Legion, which has a network of accredited service officers who file claims free of charge.

During his address, McDonough shared the following numbers regarding VA's effort in 2023, when veterans submitted 2.4 million claims, an all-time record and 39 percent more than 2022, and nearly 2.3 million intents to file, another record.

·       VA processed a record nearly 2 million claims.

·       VA delivered a record $163 billion in earned benefits to more than 1.5 million veterans and survivors.

·       Veterans had 116 million health-care appointments, another record.

·       The Board of Veteran Appeals processed more than 103,000 appeals, another record.

·       More than 46,500 homeless veterans were permanently housed, surpassing the goal of 38,000.

·       4.1 million veterans now are interred in National Cemeteries.

"All of those accomplishments, those are yours, and each of you should be rightly proud of them," McDonough said. "You play a critical role, a key enabler of the VA's mission in keeping our promises to veterans. We have no better partner than The American Legion. And this year, going forward, we're not letting up.

"Together, we're going to bring new vets to VA. We're going to expand access to VA, and we're going to help vets thrive. We're going to bring as many veterans as possible into our care, because VA is proven to be the best, most affordable health care in America for vets."

McDonough said VA already was on the way to expanding care, noting that beginning March 5, any veteran who was exposed to toxins and other hazards during their military service, whether overseas or abroad, will be eligible for VA health care.

"This is the biggest expansion of VA care in generations, and we want vets to apply as soon as possible," McDonough said. "It's quick and easy to enroll. They don't need to be sick, the don't need to file a claim before they enroll.

"Even if they don't think they need this care today, they might need it tomorrow, or the next day, or 30 years from now. All they have to do is enroll, and then they have access for life."

On the benefits side, McDonough said that starting April 20, all recipients of VA payments to veterans or family members will no longer be able to have those payments deposited into multiple bank accounts.

"We're making this change to help protect veterans and families from fraud, and to ensure that we're able to pay veterans on time, every time, without error," he said. "This will require all veterans and beneficiaries who receive GI Bill payments and other benefits payments across multiple accounts to select one of those accounts by April 20."

McDonough was asked about VA's Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM), which was paused in September 2023 after reports of veteran harm and deaths in Spokane, Wash., and elsewhere. It carries a price tag of $16 billion.

"I continue to believe, VA continues to believe, that a modernized electronic health record is pivotal, is vital to the future for two very simple reasons, both of which are the reasons we started," McDonough said. "One, to get access into a full record of a veteran's service, so we could more promptly and more accurately make sure we're making service connections. Second, it is the best, most prompt way to ensure access to care."

McDonough said a decision would be made in the next two weeks whether or not to deploy the EHRM system in the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago that VA shares with the Department of the Navy.

"We think that we need to proceed there so that we are good partners with DoD, and so that we can reap the benefit of that partnership with the Navy for a complete look into veterans records, starting from when they first enlisted, through their entire relationship at DoD and then when they joined VA," McDonough said, noting the EHRM system also is deployed at two sites in Oregon, one in Washington and one in Ohio. "We are operating those in reset mode. We are updating the system, and we want to deploy it further from those five sites, but we will not until we prove it will work in those five sites.

"I cannot give you a timeline as to when we'll know. But we are making very good progress right now."

McDonough reminded those inside the Washington Hilton's International Ballroom that he continues to view VA's relationship with organizations like The American Legion as symbiotic.

"VA can't, and doesn't, keep this nation's solid obligation and promise to vets alone," he said. "Partnerships like the VA partnership with the Legion help us tackle the most pressing priorities on preventing veteran suicide, ending veteran homelessness, improving health-care access and more. We cannot keep our promise to vets without you, your candor, because vets trust the Legion.

"Vets talk to you when something isn't working the way it should. Your work helps us better understand what veterans experienced in uniform, what they're going through here at home, and how we can better help them."

National Commander Seehafer calls for legislative advocacy beyond Washington Conference

Prior hundreds of American Legion Family members heading to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staff, American Legion National Commander Daniel Seehafer stressed how important those members were as a voice for the nation's veterans, military and their families.

But he also had another message: don't let the advocacy end with the Washington Conference.

During the Feb. 27 Commander's Rally, Seehafer urged Legionnaires to take advantage of The American Legion Grassroots Action Center, which allows members to directly reach out to their members of the House and Senate. The web platform lists the Legion's top legislative issues, along with pre-written text that can be sent directly to the representative or senator.

"It is time, now, to make legion.org/action a part of our daily lives," Seehafer said. "Why?  Well, it could mean the difference between life and death. That's why.

"You can remind Congress that it can Be the One to save the lives of our veterans. For example, Congress can Be the One that improves access to mental health treatment. Congress can Be the One to improve the quality of life for our military and their families.  Congress can Be the One indeed, but it's through you.  Remember:  Don't underestimate your power."

Seehafer stressed that "it has never been easier to message your members of Congress. You don't even have to write the words. Simply click one of our legislative priorities, filling out the appropriate information, like name, address and ZIP code, and it automatically finds your representative and/or senator, and press the highlighted red button: SEND MESSAGE. 

Seehafer listed the top five American Legion departments currently using the Legislative Action Center:

1.   Alaska

2.   Oregon

3.   Hawaii

4.   Wisconsin

5.   Nevada

"And remember to do this every day," Seehafer said. "Again, legion.org/action. This website allows you to do this every 24 hours for every issue listed. You can also post these messages on Facebook, X and other social media if you want.

"It's easy, but more importantly, two to three minutes of my time, your time, is worth a life, don't you think?"

Seehafer will testify in person on March 13 before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs. He hopes on that day to hear a specific message from those who will hear his testimony.

"My goal is for senators and representatives to tell me, ‘Commander, Commander, Commander, we've been hearing from your members, and we've been hearing from them a lot," Seehafer said. "I think we all know the old saying: ‘vote early, vote often'. Well, I'm asking you to email early and email often, through our Grassroots Action Center."

A veteran's path to fulfillment as an entrepreneur

Former Army infantry officer Nick Palmisciano, an "aspiring stoic," talks about his entrepreneurship, "overcoming failure" and more as the guest on this week's episode of The American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast.

Palmisciano, a member of American Legion Post 6 in Chapel Hill, N.C., served in the Army for six years. Among the many hats he wears now is assisting with bringing Afghanistan allies safely to America. "If you land one Afghan in the country, it's a huge victory," he says. 

After his service, Palmisciano got an MBA from Duke University, had a great job at a Fortune 100 company and was "doing all the right things but it was the least happy part of my life."

So he started making T-shirts as a hobby. And in 2006 he pivoted and started Ranger Up, the first military lifestyle brand, which kicked off a decade and change of veteran entrepreneurial endeavors focused on digital marketing and social media. 

After tossing away his six-figure salary and chasing his dream, Palmisciano almost declared bankruptcy and got a divorce. "But I felt alive, felt fulfilled."

Ranger Up eventually became a leader in the veteran community, with such strong support that it has consistently landed in Internet Retailer's Second 500 since 2012, selling over $100 million in T-shirts. 

"You have this idea you have to be a certain way or the life decisions you may have to be acceptable to other people," he explains. "The idea of doing what you are supposed to be doing, according to society, makes a lot of people miserable." 

He is now the chief executive officer of Diesel Jack Media, which has created advertisements for The American Legion. In researching, visiting and filming the ads, Palmisciano learned a lot about the organization. 

"In some of these places, the Legion is the town," he says. "Without the Legion, there is nowhere to have post-football game celebrations, or a place to vote. The Legion is the center of town."

Additionally, co-hosts Ashley Gutermuth and Stacy Pearsall also:

• Discuss the military's connection with modern feminine products.

• Highlight an industry that VA is actively recruiting for.

• Set the record straight about inclusivity at American Legion posts in "Troll Patrol."

• Reveal which well-known fast food joint once sold bubble gum flavored broccoli.

Check out this week's episode, which is among more than 220 Tango Alpha Lima podcasts available in both audio and video formats here. You can also download episodes on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or other major podcast-hosting sites. The video version is available at the Legion's YouTube channel.

 

Focusing on quality of life for military members

A "large number of servicemembers and their family members" are on SNAP or other food assistance programs.

That was among the key takeaways from a presentation by Air Force veteran Patrick Flood, the senior national security policy adviser to Rep. Don Bacon. Flood discussed quality-of-life issues on military bases during the National Security Commission's meeting at The American Legion's annual Washington Conference on Feb. 26.

Flood illustrated how food insecurity plays a role in maintaining a strong national defense.

"If we lose that fight, if we lose that kitchen table conversation, where parents and guardians no longer recommend — or perhaps oppose — military service for our sons and daughters, this enterprise is in jeopardy," he warned. "And we are seeing evidence of that."

Flood, an American Legion member, said the House Armed Services Committee has been researching quality-of-life matters and expects to submit a report by the end of March. It's been roughly a year in the making.

The committee has also been looking at other issues such as pay and compensation, housing, health-care access, child care and spousal support. "These problems are going to require more work than just the Department of Defense," he said. "It's going to require a national commitment."

The American Legion is already playing a major role in the quality of life issue.

In 2022, The American Legion created its Base Assessment and Servicemember Experience (BASE) program to address quality-of-life matters that affect servicemembers and their families. It is modeled after the Legion's System Worth Saving visits to VA health-care facilities.

The first BASE visit was conducted at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma (Ariz.). The Yuma report, now in its final stage before release, is going through a process to take into account the interviews conducted and observations during the visit, as well as various military services, policies and procedures.

"I owe a tremendous amount of debt and gratitude to The American Legion," said Flood, an alum of American Legion Buckeye Boys State. "The Legion remains in this very vast, large nation of ours, the most important and also the most compelling voice in issues facing the nation. The work you do is so very important."

Commission members also learned about border security from a first-person perspective from retired Marine Chief Warrant Officer Gerard Brinkmann, a member of American Legion Post 24 in Tombstone, Ariz. Brinkmann, who also is a member of the National Security Council and department American Legion Riders chairman, has worked for the U.S. Border Patrol since 2014.  

Brinkmann discussed the various ebbs and flows he has seen in illegal immigration, noting he has arrested the same person three times in one shift 

"The rhetoric is what drives illegal immigration," he said. "If you build it, they will come. If you make it seem like they are welcome, they will come. If you start prosecuting, they start not coming in. We need consequences." 

The solution is simple, Brinkmann said. 

"We need to start enforcing the laws on the books and look at real border reform," he recommended. 

Col. Matthew Coates, the vice chairman of the National Guard Counter Drug Program, outlined how the drug epidemic has changed. He discussed the rise in fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin.  

Coates explained why cartels have pivoted toward the drug, saying it only takes $800 to produce 415,000 fentanyl pills, which have a street value of about $1.2 million. It's also easy to transport. Fentanyl representing the size of a sugar packet equates to about 1,700 doses. 

More than 100,000 people have died annually due to fentanyl use. 

The infusion of fentanyl into the United States can be linked back to China and Mexico, Coates explained. "There is complicity with the Chinese entities."  

Coates discussed how his unit operates. "Our specific mission is to support the detention, interdiction, disruption and curtailment of drug trafficking and activities," he said, noting they have trained more than 700 agents at five different centers across the U.S.

 Coates, a member of American Legion Post 250 in Middleburg, Fla., said his office is seeking assistance and support from Legion Family members.

"You are our tie-in to the community," he said. "Part of our prevention line of effort is to get the message out and that's where you can help."