By Sherrod Brown
On Veterans Day, and every day, we must remember to express our gratitude to the men and women that have served our country in uniform. In a ceremony on Veterans Day, more than 67 years after his service in World War II, North Olmsted resident U.S. Army Corporal (Ret.) Dewey Limpert received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star along with several other overdue medals. After being contacted by Mr. Limpert’s daughter, my office worked with the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and the U.S. Army to track down the long overdue medals he deserved. Ohio’s veterans—like Mr. Limpert—have made invaluable contributions protecting our freedom.
Tracking down overdue medals is just one of many ways our office can help veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned. As your Senator, one of my most important jobs is helping veterans cut through red tape when dealing with the federal government. Whether it’s health services, assistance with obtaining disability benefits, vocational rehabilitation, or employment support, too many veterans encounter excessive delays in getting a response from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). That’s why my offices located in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Lorain are open every business day to serve you. With field offices in every region of the state – including rural areas in Southeast and Northwest Ohio – my top priority is constituent services. Veterans in need of assistance can visit http://brown.senate.gov/ohio/constituent_services/ or call my office toll-free at 1-888-896-OHIO (6446).
And while my office is always available to help constituents cut through red tape, we need to ensure that veterans have access to a system that works with, not against them. Right now, the VA faces a staggering backlog of nearly 900,000 disability claims – including more than 25,000 backlogged claims from Ohio.
Far too many veterans return home to their communities and can’t access the benefits they’ve earned in a timely fashion. In fact, more veterans than ever are contacting the VA to secure their benefits—since 2008, the department has seen a 48 percent increase in claims. Last year, the VA processed 1 million claims from our nation’s veterans, but 1.3 million new claims were submitted to VA. But too many of these claims, especially those from Ohio veterans, are backlogged.
This means that veterans—many of whom are seeking assistance to deal with service-connected injuries—are left waiting. These delays are compounded by that the fact that too often veterans must wade through the VA application on their own. Yet, help is often available – from other veterans – in the communities where veterans live.
That’s why I introduced the Veterans Services Outreach Act, which would require the VA to notify veterans filing for claims electronically that there are advocates standing by who are ready to help. Specifically, the bill would require the VA to provide information about important, time-saving assistance available from VA-approved organizations including Ohio’s county-based veterans’ service commissions and veterans’ service organizations (VSOs).
I’ve heard from many of these organizations – groups that have supported America’s veterans for decades – that the new electronic filing system does not inform applicants about their services, preventing veterans from getting all available help. To eliminate some common problems that create the backlog, like erroneously completed forms or incomplete documentation, veterans and VSOs can work together to correct common mistakes.
But we must do more than help veterans access VA services. Just as we invest in our servicemembers while they’re on the battlefield, we should do the same when they return home. But despite their service to our nation, an unacceptably high number of veterans struggle to find work. That’s why it’s imperative that we do a better job of connecting veterans with the support resources they deserve.
Among them is the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), a joint Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Labor training initiative that is a component of the recently passed VOW to Hire Heroes Act. VRAP provides unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 the opportunity to pursue training for new careers in high demand occupations. From welders, to paralegals, to teacher’s aides, VRAP offers wide ranging opportunities for veterans seeking work. However, as the program is limited to 99,000 participants through March 31, 2014—and more than 62,000 applications have already been approved nationwide—it’s crucial that Ohio’s veterans apply quickly for these vital benefits. It’s our duty to Ohio’s heroes that we spread the word to all eligible participants.
Eligible veterans must be at least 35 but no more than 60 years of age; unemployed; received an other than dishonorable discharge; not eligible for any other VA education benefit program; not receiving VA compensation due to being unemployed; and not enrolled in a federal or state job training program.
As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I support providing our nation’s veterans with the resources and services they need. In addition to supporting enhanced education and job training benefits, I will continue to fight for assured funding for all VA services and benefits. Funding for our veterans should always be a top federal priority.
Each November 11, we celebrate the story and history of our nation’s veterans. On Veterans Day, reach out to grandparents, parents, neighbors, and friends who have served and ask them about their service. From deployments to welcome home ceremonies, to medal presentations and parades, we learn about the courage, honor, and sacrifice exemplified by our servicemembers and veterans. From the newly-sworn in soldier and the children of military parents, to our veterans young and old, we learn about the greatness – and history – of our country. As the holidays approach, our thoughts and prayers are with those returning home as well as those still serving overseas. On behalf of a grateful state, I thank all Ohio veterans and their families on this Veterans Day. It’s an honor serving those who serve us.
Sherrod Brown is a United States Senator from Ohio.