By Wesley P. Hester
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., knows a thing or two about veterans' issues.
A decorated Vietnam Marine combat veteran, Webb served as the first assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and later as secretary of the Navy.
After being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, Webb introduced the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which passed Congress and became law in 2008, providing a landmark increase in college aid to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Webb, who is retiring from the Senate next year, spoke with the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week about the current state of services for veterans.
Q: Are we doing enough to help our veterans? If not, what else do we need to work toward?
A: We -- as a Congress and a nation -- can always do more, but in terms of what we have been able to accomplish in the post-9/11 era, I think we have come quite a long way. I introduced the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill my first day in office, starting with a simple concept: that we owe those people who have served since 9/11 the same type of quality educational benefits that those who served in World War II received. The president's budget request for FY2013 veterans spending is $140 billion -- more than double the amount in constant dollars appropriated in 1980, when the veterans' population was larger by a third.
I have worked on many other veterans-related priorities during my time in the Senate. I believe that our nation has a clear responsibility to provide an appropriate level of compensation and outstanding health care coverage to those who have put themselves in harm's way in the service of our country, and I have worked to ensure this as a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee and as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.
Q: You introduced the Post-9/11 G.I Bill with the hope that it would do for modern veterans what the original G.I Bill did to help World War II veterans. Has it lived up to your expectations?
A: Our G.I. Bill is the best veterans' educational program in history. It pays for tuition, books and a monthly stipend in order to give our veterans a first-class shot at the future. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill continues to be a great investment in the future of our country through the opportunities it provides to the people who have served. Since May 2009, more than 1.2 million people have applied to use the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and nearly 720,000 beneficiaries have used the benefit.
Q: As a Vietnam veteran, how do the benefits that those who have recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, differ from the benefits you received?
A: In the 1940s, the first G.I. Bill helped transform notions of equality in American society. However, benefits awarded under subsequent G.I. bills were not as expansive as our nation's original G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill given to those who served in the Vietnam War were far less generous than the current G.I. Bill.
Q: Do you think veterans are afforded the job opportunities they should be when returning from abroad or concluding their service? If not, what must be done to change that?
A: The unemployment rate among younger veterans, while it remains higher than nonveterans, continues to improve. This is, in part, thanks to a number of commendable programs that have been established to reverse this disparity. The Post-9/11 G.I. bill has gone a long way to ensure that service members have the means to obtain an education and pursue a career. The full impact will come 20 years from now when we see the contributions of those who have become successful because of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. I have also supported legislation, such as the VOW to Hire Heroes Act last fall, to assist veterans in their transition to the workforce through job training assistance.
Q: You've long expressed concern about the toll that multiple deployments take on service members. Are service members, including Guard members, now receiving adequate down time between deployments? If not, what needs to be done?
A: Repeated combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with inadequate time at home between rotations were burning out our troops when I came to the Senate in 2007. We needed more responsible rotational cycles in place to protect their welfare and their families. That is why I introduced a measure in 2007 -- the Dwell Time Amendment -- requiring that active-duty troops and units have at least the same amount of time at home as the length of their previous tour overseas. The amendment also included a similar provision addressing rotational cycles for members of the Guard and Reserve. That amendment was filibustered by Republicans, despite having a clear majority of 56 votes, but we put the issue at the forefront of the national agenda. The entire defense community is more sensitive to this issue now.
Q: The U.S. Army Public Health Command recently reported that the rate of suicide in the U.S. Army has risen dramatically since the beginning of the Iraq War. What can officeholders do to help combat this problem?
A: I have supported legislation aimed at improving suicide-prevention programs in the Department of Defense and each branch of the armed forces. From my position on the Senate Committee on Armed Services and as chair of its Personnel Subcommittee, I have continually advocated aggressive suicide awareness and prevention programs to deal with this worrisome problem. Returning veterans can make a tremendous contribution to our communities and workforce, and we must ensure that they have the proper assistance -- with both mental and physical health programs -- during the critical transition period to civilian life.