The yellow ribbon has become an iconic American symbol for a heartfelt welcome home, with all of the comforts and care that home connotes. I remember yellow ribbons first for the American hostages in Iran in 1981, but then I saw them for my comrades-in-arms and me when I came home from Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf War. And in my last job in the Navy as deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, I saw yellow ribbons as we welcomed back our sailors from service on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, disarming IEDs, protecting dams and sea-based oil rigs, and re-building the infrastructure. I am extremely proud of their service and that pride fueled the warmth of the welcome home.
But our veterans deserve more than yellow ribbons and parades. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added some 2.5 million new veterans to the millions still living from previous U.S. conflicts. These men and women of action deserve our action. America makes a solemn vow to the men and women who serve the military: Dedicate your life to the protection and well-being of the United States, and we will care for those who have borne the battle and their families. This means those who have served should, at a bare minimum, have timely access to top-notch healthcare and educational opportunities aimed at capitalizing on their unique experiences and skills sets for competitive civilian jobs.
A lot of people might be surprised to know that Secretary Hillary Clinton has long been a leader on this front. I am not talking about speeches; she has actually made tangible progress for veterans. No other presidential candidate comes close to her record of accomplishment for veterans and their families. She has worked with, and will continue to work with, Republicans and Democrats alike to improve the quality of life for veterans, service members, and their families.
One particularly enlightening example was her fight to expand military healthcare benefits to reservists and guardsmen — as well as to their loved ones — guaranteeing that they were covered by Tricare even when they were not deployed. Before she, along with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, fought to expand these service members’ access to Tricare, they were only covered while on active duty orders and for a limited time afterward. Not only was it a travesty that some military families didn’t have healthcare, but it posed a serious hurdle in military readiness for today’s expeditionary force. She was able to include this provision in the FY2005 National Defense Authorization Act, when nearly 40 percent of Americans serving in Iraq were reservists. The next year, she partnered with future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on working to increase the gratuity paid to families of those who perish in service to the country from $12,000 to $100,000 (over and above any service members’ life insurance).
While in the Senate, Secretary Clinton also championed legislation signed into law to broaden protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act for family members of wounded Sailors, airmen, soldiers, and Marines. This protects the jobs of family member caregivers so they can focus on looking after their spouse, parent, or child, and not whether they will still have a job when they try to go back to work.
She also knows that the VA has not lived up to its mission in recent years and something must be done about it. The VA’s problems will not be found in privatizing veterans’ medical care — that doesn’t mean we can’t learn some lessons from business, but the needs of those who have sacrificed the most for their country should never be trumped by the bottom line. Secretary Clinton’s policy proposals show she fully understands that we must fix the systemic problems plaguing the VA by first tackling the outrageous wait times veterans face when seeking care, streamlining the claims process, and giving veterans a workable appeals process. The proposal is in depth and detailed, and tackles each of these problems one by one.
Take, for instance, the claims process. First, she will simplify the benefits claims process by eliminating barriers between DoD and VA processes and combining their medical evaluations. She will also promote the expanded use of “fully developed claims” and implement rules-based automatic adjudication, both of which will make processing claims faster and more efficient. She will also ensure the appeals process has the resources it needs to make sure the VA does right by those who serve their nation in uniform.
Second, she will strengthen ties and information sharing between the VA and DoD so these agencies can better plan and prepare for future waves of VA claims. Doing so will give these the agencies far better anticipation, allowing them to surge resources well in advance to avoid out-of-control claims backlogs.
Lastly, she will launch an Innovation Initiative, connecting the VA with the brightest minds in business, academia, and civilian service organizations. These groups can help the VA develop the dynamic solutions necessary to better manage current problems like the benefits claims and appeals process, while putting the best ideas to work toward meeting future challenges.
She knows that it is not just about fixing VA’s medical systems, but about modernizing the full spectrum of veterans’ benefits. Our contract with veterans does not end with their medical concerns — we must follow through with education and jobs. I know from my own experience, both in and out of government after I retired from the Navy, that military training can lead to professional success as a civilian. Secretary Clinton has pledged to expand jobs programs with private companies so that our veterans can succeed once they are out of uniform. That means ensuring the GI Bill can be used to cover education for tomorrow’s jobs and strengthening ties with leading private sector companies and labor groups. And to promote the hiring of veterans across the board, she will look to make permanent existing tax credits, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, for companies that employ veterans and expand incentives for employers to make workplace adjustments for disabled veterans.
Another prime area set for Secretary Clinton’s attention is helping those that may fall through the legal system’s cracks by expanding Veterans Treatment Courts. These courts, which emphasize treating mental health and substance abuse over simply punishment, are practical alternatives to traditional criminal prosecution for veterans who commit minor offenses that are aggravated by these conditions.
Most veterans are tired of hearing empty political promises from candidates every few years only to be forgotten once they take office — and then suddenly being remembered again during reelection season. To maintain focus and momentum on her veterans agenda, Clinton is promising to convene a White House Summit on Veterans. It will meet early and often to hold ALL those in her administration accountable for veterans’ policies and programs. Veterans’ advocacy has to be bigger than just the VA; her proposal for a President’s Council on Veterans, focused on an all-of-government approach, is unique in recognizing how our promise to veterans remains, at best, incomplete.
George Washington knew how central to America and its security the treatment of veterans is. In a statement widely attributed to him, he said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.” Not just yellow ribbons. Action. I trust Secretary Clinton to take effective action because she already has a proven track record of doing so for veterans and their families. And she is the only one in the race who has such a record. For American veterans and their families, I support Secretary Clinton.
Jamie Barnett, a rear admiral, retired in 2008 after 32 years of military service. His last position in active duty was deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, which had 9,000 Sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.