“If we’re going to send our men and women into harm’s way and break ‘em, it’s our responsibility to fix them when they come home.” – Richard Ojeda
Somewhere between 7 and 8% of the US population has served in the military. These brave individuals took on the sacred duty of protecting our democracy and making the world a safer place. The debt we owe to everyone who took on this responsibility – especially those who sacrificed their lives – cannot be repaid.
But we must try. And we must do much better than we’re doing now.
There are many issues unique to the veteran community that we need to address. The transition to civilian life should be smoother, and we need to put more support structures in place. Public misconceptions have lead to issues with employment. Homelessness is a perennial problem, and the VA – especially the Veterans Health Administration – can do much more to improve the well-being of those who have served.
These heroes protect and serve us during their tenure, but they come home to a quick thank you and an economy that isn’t set up to help them succeed. We owe them more than a handshake.
More Than A Handshake: My Plan to Better Serve Our Veterans
Returning Heroes Initiative
Our service members live a life much different than the rest of us during their service. This experience can make the transition to civilian life difficult. All members of the military should receive training as they end their service that makes this transition as smooth as possible.
Reverse Boot Camp
When starting their service, members of the armed forces go through a boot camp in order to ensure that they’re ready for the rigors of service. As they end their service, they should go through an equally important training program on elements of civilian life that would not be second-nature to someone who has had a regimented routine over the past several years.
The reverse boot camp would ensure that all veterans are aware of the general “timeline” of issues they’ll face. Recent veterans face different challenges than those who have been out of the armed services for a longer time period. For example, immediately after their discharge from the military, veterans often face issues with adjusting to a self-directed schedule and finding a new career, issues which are resolved over time.
This reverse boot camp would teach valuable skills required of civilian adults, such as:
- Grocery shopping and nutrition, cooking, and creating and sticking to a personal schedule (without the regimented schedule enforced by the military)
- Financial literacy and training, such as creating and sticking to a personal budget, personal banking, retirement saving, and paying bills
On top of the financial literacy training, there also needs to be laws put in place so that veterans are protected from payday lenders and other predatory businesses. This would involve creating zones around bases where these businesses couldn’t operate, lending institutions specifically for veterans that could provide financial assistance if needed coupled with more financial literacy training, and financial assistance for veterans who are having difficulty paying off predatory loans.
It would also ensure that all veterans are aware of the myriad programs available to them, including employment, health, and other support services.
Additionally, it would involve a lot of information and training on finding a new career outside of the military, including:
- Setting salary expectations for the private sector, based on field and qualifications
- Translating military skills to civilian skills
- Creating a resume and finding job opportunities
This Reverse Boot Camp would involve a number of group classes and individual consultations with experts in the military, veterans, and private-sector experts in order to ensure that all veterans are equipped to successfully transition to civilian life.
(Note: See the mentorship program in the Employment section, below)
GI Bill/Education Improvements
The GI Bill is one of our best ways to thank the brave individuals who serve this country. While this benefit program provides flexibility and training to our veterans as they transition to civilian life, there are ways that it can be improved to make this transition easier.
The application and payment system needs to be modernized and streamlined so that our veterans don’t need to jump through additional hoops in order to use their GI Bill. Approvals should be on entire courses of study instead of on a semester-by-semester basis, thus making it easier and less stressful to continue at an institution.
The qualified courses of study should also be expanded to allow for more varied career pursuits after service, while also providing protections for our veterans from for-profit institutions that wouldn’t provide a significant chance of employment after graduation, certification, or completion of the course. Any institution that receives tuition through this program should be required to report on employment numbers and be held accountable if they’re not meeting certain standards.
Military service provides protection to all 50 states. As such, all veterans should receive in-state tuition automatically from any public institution, regardless of how long they’ve held residency, and without any restrictions.
Schools should also be pushed to give unlimited course credit for equivalent courses from military training, especially for all service members who received additional training in specialized fields. The VA should work with all schools to create an “Equivalent Courses” list so it’s easy for veterans to figure out what they’re qualified to receive credit for.
All schools should also have clear and flexible policies for enrollment and withdrawal for veterans and active servicemembers. These policies should include:
- Early enrollment periods, as well as late enrollment periods without penalty or fee
- Rules on what proportion of an individual class’s coursework must be completed, and to what standard, for credit to be issued, in case of a call to active duty (recommended: 85% of work completed with a passing grade)
- Tuition refunds in case coursework is interrupted because of a call to active duty
Military Training: The Gold Standard
In short, if someone is qualified to do a job in the military, they should be qualified to do that job in the US.
Too many of our veterans have been trained to a high level in skills that aren’t respected when they get back home. These veterans often need to spend thousands of dollars and a significant amount of time receiving a certification to do a job that they’ve been doing throughout their service.
It’s an impediment to veteran employment, it disrespects the work done in the military, and, quite frankly, it’s wasteful.
We need to work with state licensing boards, and other organizations that are involved in certifications, to ensure that those who are trained by the military can seamlessly transition to a job in the civilian economy that they are qualified for. CDLs and EMT certifications, as well as paramedic and nurse, and other jobs that require certification, should all see a much easier transition from practicing them in the military and being employed in that job outside of service.
Employment and Veteran Businesses
Working to ensure that licensing and certification standards transfer between military and civilian jobs is just a start to ensuring that we do everything we can to help veterans find and maintain employment. But there’s a lot more we need to do.
I have met with several veteran groups and one vet told me something profound. “It’s not that employers just aren’t pro-veteran. They are actually looking for reasons to say no and rule you out because they think you’re damaged goods.”
There’s a general belief among Americans that most veterans suffer from a mental health issue, despite that number being much, much smaller. The first thing we need to do is better inform the American people and, in particular, employers on this reality to combat this prejudice against hiring veterans.
We also need to invest in, and create, mentorship programs for veterans. Non-profits such as American Corporate Partners are doing great work at matching veterans with mentors who can help them find and adapt to a new career. We should invest in other non-profits, and create programs within the federal government, that also help veterans adjust to civilian life. And we should also incentivize businesses to create mentorship programs internally, that provide both a non-veteran and veteran mentor to newly hired veterans. These mentors could help veterans in their careers, and also advocate internally for veteran candidates to be hired.
In order to help veterans find fulfilling and stable careers, the government should research and maintain a database of in-demand skills and professions, and match veterans to these jobs based on their skills. The government can also partner with businesses in these areas to match up qualified candidates, and incentivize businesses to hire veterans. This can take the form of subsidies, both for the hiring itself and also for the investment in helping the veteran transition from their career in the military to their career at this business, since the rigidity, culture, requirements, and networking required can be very different, and a transition/learning window is often required.
Finally, the federal government should provide resources to veteran-run businesses. This can take the form of initial investment, low-cost financing options, and preferential treatment.
Veterans Health Initiative
My vision of the future for American healthcare involves covering everyone – even veterans – under a Medicare for All-style program. However, the VA would still have a role in veteran health in this system, transitioning to a focus on veteran-specific issues (prosthetics, chronic ailments related to battlefield injury, mental health and PTSD) and maintaining expertise in these areas.
Until that transition, there are still many ways we can improve treatment for our veterans, starting with easing the transition from TRICARE to the VA system through improved administration and enrollment.
Once in that system, we need to focus on increasing options and improving access, especially in rural areas, without succumbing to calls to privatize the program.
Improving Health, Increasing Options
The first thing we need to recognize is that providing for the health of our veterans is a moral imperative, and we need to fully fund a system that works to maximize veteran health.
In addition to funding the operations of veteran healthcare, we need to ensure that we’re creating a budget that allows for proper research into issues that affect the veteran community in particular. Suicide prevention and PTSD/TBI treatment, long-term effects of battlefield-related injuries, exposure to substances unique to combat environments, and similar areas should be researched to find the optimal treatments, and the VA (in partnership with the CDC) is best equipped to do so.
Staffing needs to be improved. Salaries and benefits should be increased in order to fully staff and maintain best-in-class doctors and administrative staff. Clear metrics for success in each role should be established, and individuals who are not measuring up need to be let go. There also needs to be a push to hire doctors who specialize in treatment of women’s issues, including sexual trauma, and issues facing our transgender veterans, as well as expanding options for these veterans to receive treatment outside of the VA system if they so choose.
On a similar note, we should investigate ways to improve and expand the Choice Act to lower wait times and expand access and increase the efficacy of our electronic records database to make it easier for veterans to find healthcare where they are.
Substance abuse treatment should be expanded, with more available treatment centers and long-term support, as helping with addiction issues will reduce many other issues for veterans (homelessness, unemployment, suicide). The same should be true for general mental health care.
In order to improve access and efficiency, many more GP centers should be opened, especially in rural areas, so that no veteran needs to travel a significant distance to see a doctor (the Choice Act can help with this, as well). If a veteran needs to travel to a specialized treatment center, transportation should be provided or subsidized.
Controlled Substance Exceptions
The scientific evidence that certain controlled substances – particularly marijuana – are particularly effective at treating certain ailments common to veterans (e.g., PTSD) and for pain management.
While I’m in favor of legalizing marijuana at the federal level, if that takes time, we need to provide waivers for veterans so they can receive this treatment, as well as prescribe it through the VA. This includes waivers and prescriptions for veterans residing in states that currently don’t allow for personal use or medical exceptions for marijuana use.
We should also fund research into other controlled substances that have been shown to hold promise for treating PTSD and other diseases, and provide similar waivers and prescriptions should these other substances prove efficacious.
We owe it to our veterans to do everything possible to help them manage any health issues they have.
Ending Veteran Suicide
22 veterans commit suicide every day. That number is 22 too high, and I commit to decreasing it at least by half by the end of my first term as President.
Providing all other services to increase the stability veterans feel, and ensuring a successful transition to civilian life, should help decrease veteran suicide. But there’s more we can do to combat this scourge.
Treatment doesn’t work if its not sought out. 80% of veterans cite embarrassment or shame as a barrier to asking for mental health treatment. We need to combat this by destigmatizing veteran treatment. It can start with an initiative to identify high-ranking veterans who received mental health treatment to speak to these issues publicly, and it can continue with information provided during the Reverse Boot Camp.
We also need to increase the funding and reach of crisis lines to ensure that any veteran has immediate access to individuals who can direct them to mental health services, or to a mental health professional who can provide immediate counseling and treatment.
Finally, as gun suicide disproportionately affects veterans, we should provide free gun safes/storage for all veterans, which has been shown to significantly reduce suicide risk.
Every Vet Under a Roof Initiative
Homelessness disproportionately affects veterans. This is unacceptable, and I commit to decreasing it substantially during my first term as President.
It’s important to note that there are differences in chronic and situational veteran homelessness. Improving stability and employment will help primarily with situational homelessness, while chronic homelessness is usually related to health/mental health issues.
Helping with their transition to civilian life and increasing employment and stability is a huge step in decreasing the number of situationally homeless veterans. Improving mental health resources and treatment is a huge step in combating chronic homelessness.
In order to directly tackle this issue, however, we need to start by establishing a census-like team that will research and find all of our homeless veterans and get them and their information into the VA system. This will allow the health professionals to treat any mental or physical health issues that are contributing to the homelessness, as well as enroll them in other programs to help with employment, financial literacy, and general life skills.
We also need to help veterans afford housing through financial literacy, assistance in saving up for a down payment or security deposit (including by instituting programs while they’re still in active service, to dedicate portions of their pay specifically to retirement and post-discharge housing), mortgage options, and, if it comes to it, assistance in foreclosure proceedings (including incentives for mortgage companies to find alternatives to foreclosures).
We can also do more to increase the availability of affordable housing options. A great example of this is the Tiny Houses project by the Veterans Community Project. Non-profits and the government can work together to innovate in this space and ensure that no veteran falls through the cracks.