December 2018

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Military Times, WASHINGTON — Rolling Thunder’s annual roaring parade through the streets of the nation’s capital is coming to an end.

Group organizers said this year’s planned motorcycle ride in May, expected to draw more than 1 million riders and spectators to the National Mall, will be the last time the large-scale demonstration is held, citing cost concerns.

The event has become a fixture of Memorial Day commemorations in Washington, D.C. for more than 30 years, drawing attention to military members still missing in action. But the noisy, attention-getting demonstration also has become a victim of its own success.

Pete Zaleski, vice president of Rolling Thunder Inc., said costs for security and clean-up of the event have swelled to more than $200,000, an expense the group cannot continue to sustain.

“It really has exploded to beyond what we can support,” he told Military Times. “These costs didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Zaleski said the size of the crowd both participating and watching have prompted additional security concerns at the Pentagon, where the annual ride typically starts. That has prompted several new costs and conflicts with local officials.

Still, the loss of one of the most public and recognizable national Memorial Day commemorations drew disappointment from members of the veterans community.

“These demonstrations and Rolling Thunder’s unbelievable work over the past 32-plus years has made a tremendous impact, keeping the search going for our missing and prisoners of war,” said Joe Chennelly, national executive director of AMVETS. “We as an organization are grateful.”

Chennelly called the group’s work “too important to our veterans, and really to all Americans, to simply let it stop.” His organization is looking at ways to support the Rolling Thunder chapters moving forward.

Zaleski said he hopes the announcement of the end of the tradition will bring even more attention to the event’s message.

“When word gets out that this is the last one, it’s going to draw even more people,” he said. “The next ride ought to be huge.”

The final ride is scheduled for May 26, 2019. More information is available on the Rolling Thunder web site.

Many disabled veterans are better off financially than they were four years ago, according to a recent Wounded Warrior Project survey of post-9/11 veterans.

Despite multiple service-connected injuries or health problems, more disabled vets have their own homes, jobs and college degrees.

“We’re continuing to see that positive momentum and realizing that when they transition, it’s not the end of the road, but it’s the beginning of a new journey,” said Melanie Mousseau, metrics director for Wounded Warrior Project, which conducted the 33,000-person survey with research partner Westat this year. “That’s really promising seeing that coming out of the data.”

This year, 36 percent of warriors said they had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 25 percent of respondents in 2014. The percentage of homeowners in this group grew from 46 to 60 percent in that time frame.

And since 2014, the unemployment rate for disabled veterans has trended downward, as has unemployment among post-9/11 veterans as a whole.

For the first time in the survey’s recent history, more respondents said their financial condition has improved from one year ago than said it has gotten worse. In this year’s survey, 27 percent said their financial status is better now than it was a year ago and 25 percent said it is worse, with 43 percent saying it’s the same. By comparison, in 2016 24 percent said their finances were better and 30 percent said they were worse.

Though trends are improving, many of the veterans who participated in the latest annual Wounded Warrior Project survey, which included a small percentage of service members still on active-duty, still encounter obstacles in these areas.

The study showed that while the majority of veterans are using VA education benefits to pay for school, including through the GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, about 33 percent owe $30,000 or more in student loan debt.

Such debt, from student loans and other sources, could make it difficult to qualify for a mortgage, the study’s authors write, “especially if they have limited savings.”

Only a small fraction of all survey respondents, 3 percent, said they had no debt at all.

These statistics could stem from persistent challenges finding gainful employment that some respondents highlighted in the survey. In many cases, veterans struggled to find a job because of mental or physical hardship; others said public perceptions about disabled veterans and PTSD were hurting their chances.

 One veteran wrote, “I found it extremely difficult to find work, and I feel that was because of my military history. Many people continued to ask questions like could I cope with normal life and how would I deal with difficult situations. And they asked those questions time and time again.”

Another said, “It is not that no one will hire me because of my injury or disability, but because they later will force me out of the job for that reason because I need to go to the hospital or appointments so much for my disabilities.” Additionally, “My work history requires an employer to think out of the box about who and why they are hiring.”

Aside from financial outcomes, gainful employment can have other benefits, according to a group of panelists who discussed the survey findings and their implications at a recent Brookings Institution event in Washington, D.C.

“People that are gainfully employed are engaged, often, in something that they feel a mission, purpose or sense of value in,” said Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevent at the VA. “It can parallel their military time where they have this unit cohesion … fun, friendship, sense of purpose, mission, belongingness and also practical things like healthcare and a predictable routine and contributions that they feel positive about.”

Mousseau said the Wounded Warrior Project’s research showed greater job satisfaction among veterans whose employers had veteran affinity groups.

Wounded Warrior Project CEO Michael Linnington said the organization is taking notes on the survey data and long-term trends, including on the employment front, to steer internal decisions about programming and advocacy efforts.

“We’ve put a significant effort into finding opportunities for warriors to get engaged where they can get settled in careers of their choice,” he said. “But we also have probably a higher number of veterans that are in jobs that although provide them with the ability to sustain their lifestyle, it doesn’t give them the ability to do more. So we’re looking at better jobs, better careers for warriors.”

Military Times, Washington, DC

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the bill’s passage through the House on Thursday.

After a tumultuous fall semester of inaccurate housing stipends for thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill students, Congress has passed a bill to hold the Veterans Affairs Department responsible for retroactively fixing these mistakes.

“For many student veterans, every dime counts. That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. “I’m glad that my colleagues in the Senate saw how important this issue is, and I hope this bill stays on the fast track to becoming law, so we can make this right for our veterans.”

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Tuesday — just days before Congress breaks for the holidays and changes hands in the new year.

The House quickly took up the effort, passing it by a vote of 389 to 0 Thursday.

VA Sec. Robert Wilkie has already committed to retroactively reimbursing students who were underpaid this fall because of technology challenges that delayed the implementation of the Forever GI Bill, originally set to take hold Aug. 1.

The new law changed how housing stipends were to be calculated, bringing the payments in line with what active-duty E-5s with dependents receive for their basic housing allowance. It also directed VA to pay students based on the location of where they take the most classes, and not their schools’ main campus.

Officials have said they will begin reimbursing students who did not receive a cost-of-living increase this fall starting in January; however, the VA will not have the technological capability to fix location-based errors until next December.

“This legislation will hold the VA accountable by requiring the department to establish a ‘Tiger Team’ with the specific focus on solving the problem of reimbursements and ensuring the veterans receive their full housing benefit,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the bill’s sponsor.

The Tiger Team would need to be established immediately, with names and titles of the employees provided to Congress within 15 days. Every 90 days, that team would be required to update Congress on the reimbursement plan and, by July 2020, report how many GI Bill beneficiaries were impacted, and to what extent.

The bill also holds the department to its promise not to collect on any overpayments made to GI Bill users.

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., described the VA’s IT systems as “ancient” and said the implementation of the Forever GI Bill was “bumpy, to say the least.”

“While I’m encouraged by Sec. Wilkie’s decision to reset implementation of the modifications, we owe it to our veterans to conduct oversight of this process,” he said. “This bill will ensure the VA does the right thing and pays student veterans … what they are owed under law.”

Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane contributed to this story.

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September is Suicide Prevention Month
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Hurricane Michael has caused catastrophic damage and impacted millions. Get information on how to receive aid or how to make a gift to help veterans and their families in need.

 

www.dav.org/veterans/outreach-programs/disaster-relief/