By Valerie Garner
Robin Sherwood was a yeoman in the U.S. Navy on the ground in Vietnam in 1969. The word "promise is really important to me," he said to former Virginia Governor and U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine. The Salem Disabled American Veterans (DAV) hosted a roundtable discussion Monday on military veterans issues.
The seventeen veterans aired their grievances about government bureaucracy and red tape that they had to endure to get promised benefits. The veterans agreed that most of the blame lay with the federal government. The Virginia Department of Veterans Services got high praise, as did the Salem Veterans Administration across the street.
Not everything is up for spending cuts said Kaine. "Some programs are producing more value for citizens then others
veteran's benefits are a perfect example of this. It's not just a line item in the budget. It is an earned benefit like a contract, like a promise," said Kaine. He added that benefits are connected to retention and recruitment with an all-volunteer military. "As we're making cuts we need to protect benefits that have been promised to people."
Sherwood said though he was a Republican he worked to get retiring Senator Jim Webb elected and he was a bit miffed on hearing of his impending departure.
Kaine said that as Virginia's governor he always wondered why each state had to have its own veteran's agency. "It shouldn't be such a complicated system at the federal level that you need a state to have their own agency to help get federal benefits," he said.
Information on veterans' benefits is collected from many different and sometimes conflicting sources. With technology advances delays in processing claims should not be an issue he said. Kaine still hears complaints. Veterans tell him that it is "a disorganized fractured system where people don't necessarily know what is the access point."
Kaine would like to see a single point of access. Duplicate data is being entered unnecessarily he thought. The veterans at the table gave nods of agreement when he suggested a "turbo-tax" like form that would populate and submit a veteran's data throughout the benefit system -- a one-form solution.
Reemployment while transitioning to civilian jobs should be easier said Kaine. He suggested having the skills learned in the military translate to civilian job certifications that civilian employers could understand. Some veterans "get no credit for what they were doing." In the past it was easier because employers understood what a "gunnery sergeant" does said Kaine. Today there isn't an understanding of a veteran's value.
"There are all kinds of civilian credentials that would work for all kinds of skills these days," said Kaine. Examples he gave were Cisco system's administrator and EMT certifications. That information then would be retained in personnel files he said.
Kaine having conducted multiple veteran roundtables says he hears veterans say "I was valued while on active duty but now that I'm a veteran they treat me like I am an antagonist." Veterans feel like benefits are being delayed to balance the budget. According to Kaine these delay tactics make them feel like there are two separate teams -- active military and veteran. Kaine said, "that made his blood boil."
Going to an all-volunteer military was a culture change with many people having no connection to the military. This makes it harder for people to understand the hardships that both veterans and their families' face said Kaine. "Promises to veterans would be easier to keep because everybody would have a stake in keeping promises if they understood," he said.
After the roundtable broke up Kaine was asked what he learned. "Clearly how we deal with our fiscal reality and how we deal with veterans' issues is very important. Indiscriminant cuts would undercut the promises we have made to our veterans."