Oral testimony delivered June 8, 2021 by AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly:
Chairman Takano, Ranking Member Bost, and member of the Committee,
As the most inclusive Congressionally chartered veterans service organization, representing the interests of all of America’s veterans and their families, AMVETS is honored to provide our views of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2022.
Over this past Memorial Day weekend, we hosted our first “Rolling to Remember” demonstration here in Washington, D.C. This is now the nation’s largest veterans’ event, which brought together tens of thousands of veterans advocates from across the United States, riding their motorcycles to highlight critical issues — to demand continued and increased accounting for the 82,000 service members still missing in action, as well as raise awareness of the many veterans dying by suicide each day.
We will never forget our POWs and MIAs, and we won’t stop fighting for real solutions to the suicide crisis. This is a powerful advocacy platform with tremendous reach. We will ride each year until they all come home, and until all who make it home are well.
The budget request lacks vision. When it comes to mental health, there isn’t anything new. It calls for spending a lot more money on the same old same old.
We call for the creation of a presidential taskforce to build a real vision and path forward for VA, departing from the disability-centric model and instituting a system that encourages well-being through new programs that train veterans to be well, the best version of themselves.
Last Congress, legislators bickered for nearly two years over spending 180 million dollars for non-profit programs, yet will likely rubber-stamp the President’s request to increase VA’s general mental health budget by 1.5 billion dollars, up to a record 13.5 billion dollars. It is challenging for us to understand why lawmakers would spend an entire Congress arguing over 180 million but will let 1.5 Billion slide by with minimal discussion on the long-term outcomes or effectiveness of these programs and pharmaceuticals.
In our sustained demand for a fresh, critical look at the suicide epidemic and its causation, we were forced to confront some hard realities. We believe we are failing our nation’s veterans.
We expect our service members to be the strongest, most physically and mentally exceptional individuals they can be until the day they separate from service. Then all of our policies favor veterans being unwell, sick, and disabled – with little vision, path, or messaging to help veterans become the best version of themselves.
How does a very generous system of programs and benefits lead to such bleak outcomes?
VA rightfully compensates for service-connected disabilities. The intent is good, but there is something big missing. If you are well when you leave the military, you are largely left out. If you are “broken,” you have tons of valuable support available through the VA.
The system, as it is now, fails to provide tangible leadership and training for veterans upon their separation from service, failing to articulate and encourage meaningful, positive goals, providing no incentive for physical, mental, and financial wellness.
AMVETS argues that vision is the most important component missing from the President’s proposed budget, and from the national conversation.
The system needs to be reimagined, refocused, a vision laid out to encourage veterans to become the best, strongest person they can be. We need policies, benefits, and VA and VSO employees systemically encouraging that outcome.
We need to stop the victimization conversation. We need to stop telling veterans that they are victims and suicidal. Where is the positive messaging? Where are the billboards of veterans who have overcome great odds and lived incredible lives, served their communities, built businesses, achieved incredible physical feats, and taken care of their families and friends? Why, as veterans, are we being inundated with messaging suggesting we are suicidal? We were Marines for life, Army strong, Forged by the Sea, Aiming High, but now we are Veteran Suicidal? The messaging is wrong. And it matters.
Instead of doing just enough to help veterans survive, VA should be setting a path to help veterans thrive.
The President’s current budget justification reads: “The 2022 Budget request for the VA fulfills the President’s sacred promise to care for America’s Veterans, their families, and survivors when they return from harm’s way.”
But what if it read? The 2022 Budget request for the VA will work to assist veterans and survivors in their efforts to achieve their personal goals, maintain a state of physical and mental wellness, provide service to their communities,
and become their best selves.
Our version may be a little wordy, but it describes the mindset VA needs in planning for FY22 and beyond. Coming up with a productive, modern vision and strategy is worthy of a Presidential Task Force, which we propose in our written testimony.
While the words of President Lincoln were true post-Civil War, this is not the reality for veterans today. Despite our injuries, we can do great things, and we need the VA to help us with that.
We need a VA that incentives veterans to push themselves, to better themselves.
We need to get out of the business of spending billions on ineffective mental health services and pharmaceuticals focused only on treating veterans’ symptoms, and instead fund pro-active programs that train veterans how to live happy, healthy lives, of purpose; with programs and services designed and funded to achieve those goals.
We need our President and we need Congress to form a clear vision, to build a better VA; a VA focused on helping veterans reach their full potential. And that can start here with you, this budget cycle.
Additionally, we owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the VA for their efforts as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our veterans are most grateful for the incredible job the VA did in administering vaccines and treating the tens of thousands of veterans who were infected. Our thoughts are with the families of veterans who died as a result of the virus.
We know that had it not been for the incredible actions of the VA and its staff, many more veterans would have lost their lives. We are grateful.
AMVETS is honored to have this opportunity to present our views to you today. We understand that we are proposing some significant changes in moving toward a VA of the future.
We look forward to working with this committee on these and the many other important issues under your purview. We will always strive to create better policies that lead to better outcomes for the some 19 million veterans we serve.
Full written testimony HERE