By Eric Katz
July 25, 2012
In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama pledged as a candidate for president to bring a renewed focus to the nation’s neglected veterans, to reinvest in programs that benefit returning soldiers and to reintroduce them to the American Dream.
As the president gears up for reelection he now is trying to convince veterans, and the American public, that he has delivered on those pledges.
In a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., on Monday, Obama spelled out the steps his administration has taken to address the needs of the nation’s returned troops, and he unveiled an initiative to ease the transition from combat to civilian life for service men and women returning home. He emphasized promises he argues he has kept, as well as areas that still need improvement.
“As you reflect on recent years, as we look ahead to the challenges we face as a nation and the leadership that’s required, you don’t just have my words, you have my deeds,” Obama said. “You have my track record. You have the promises I’ve made and the promises that I’ve kept.”
Obama announced the first update to the Transition Assistance Program -- which provides pre-separation counseling and workshops to outgoing service members -- in nearly 20 years, called Transition GPS. The changes, which come as a result of a task force called for in a 2011 speech at the Washington Navy Yard, include extending the transition program from three days to between five and seven; providing individualized counseling; and offering optional, more specific training for those looking to pursue higher education or their own business.
Also on Monday, Obama signed into law the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act, which will require federal agencies to consider military abilities and experiences when awarding licenses and contracts.
The president pointed to two tax credits, increased Veterans Affairs Department funding and a reduction in backlogged disability claims as evidence of the progress his administration has made on veterans’ issues.
In November 2011, Obama signed into law the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, which gives up to $5,600 to businesses that hire unemployed veterans, and the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit, which doubles the existing credit for long-term unemployed veterans with service-related disabilities to $9,600. Obama has called on Congress to extend these credits, which are set to expire at the end of the year.
In 2010 and 2011 combined, VA has processed more than 2 million claims to assist veterans suffering from a service-related condition, a record achievement, the administration said.
Obama’s budget included $76 million in mandatory spending for Veterans Affairs and $64 million in discretionary spending for fiscal 2013, the highest ever allocated to the department, according to the White House. Obama pledged that VA spending would be exempt in the event of sequestration.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki went into more detail Wednesday, explaining that while veteran benefits will be exempt from the cuts, the administrative budget would be slashed if automatic budget cuts are permitted to take effect in Janauary, and that could it make it difficult for the agency to make payments and provide services.
"I don't have a definition of the costs right now," he told a joint hearing of the Senate and House Veteratans Affairs Committees.
Some of Obama’s other claims also have not painted a full picture, according to a report from the Associated Press.
AP pointed to a VA inspector general’s report that found the number of long-term pending claims has increased dramatically since 2009 due to the number of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, despite Obama’s comments praising the progress made in helping veterans seeking mental health care, the IG found nearly 50 percent of veterans wait about 50 days before receiving treatment.
Obama said he is aware of this problem and pledged to address it.“When I hear about veterans waiting months, or years, for your benefits, it is unacceptable. And we are doing something about it,” he said.
In his closing argument, the incumbent candidate made the case that his record on veterans’ issues warrants a second term for one simple reason: The United States is on the right track.
“Today, we can point to progress,” Obama said. “And now we’ve got to sustain that momentum.”
His opponent in the upcoming election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, spoke at VFW on Tuesday. He attacked the president for his foreign policy but did not specifically address veterans’ issues.
This story has been updated with Wednesday developments.
By Eric Katz
July 25, 2012