September 19, 2014

The Esoteric Benefit of Hiring Veterans

America’s newest veterans continue to have a tough time on the job market. With both job growth and overall growth in the economy still sluggish, the 10.1 % unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is still well above the national average. This trend is disturbing, particularly for the population of young Americans who put their lives, education, and careers on hold to serve in our nation’s armed forces.

Much attention has been focused recently on encouraging private employers to hire new veterans, especially those returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s preeminent business and trade group, has sponsored an ambitious new campaign called Hiring Our Heroes to encourage and facilitate the hiring of veterans and military spouses within its network of three million businesses. To date, the program has held more than 500 career fairs focused on the military community and helped tens of thousands of veterans get hired.

First Lady Michelle Obama has also made veterans and military families a top priority through her signature Joining Forces initiative, which has included a prominent focus on hiring veterans. Similarly, the West Wing has begun highlighting veteran employment issues too. A recent White House Forum on Military Licensing and Credentialing focused on enhancing the transferability of military skills to the civilian job market. And of course the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor have ongoing veteran employment and training programs that have become core parts of their respective missions.

Even Congress, which many criticize for not being able to agree on nearly anything, passed a sweeping veteran jobs bill called the VOW to Hire Heroes Act in 2011, and continues to enact and encourage other legislative and policy initiatives to require professional licensing reciprocity for military families, provide businesses with tax credits for hiring veterans, and pilot the expansion of civilian credentialing programs within the military’s training and education system.

The common denominator among all of these campaigns, programs, and initiatives is typically a focus on skills and experience, and the applicability of those skills and that experience to equivalent civilian industries or other jurisdictions.

Surely the Army Combat Medic or Navy Corpsman who has spent years triaging and treating battlefield trauma in chaotic conditions on multiple deployments is more than qualified to work as an Emergency Medical Technician in Chicago or Charlotte or Shreveport. And of course a military officer who was responsible for securing or transporting or procuring billions of dollars worth of advanced machinery and equipment has more than the requisite experience and competence to manage most private sector logistics operations.

But what can’t be translated or communicated so easily to civilian employers and hiring officials are the non-quantifiable and non-obvious traits that veterans – especially those who are just leaving the service – tend to possess.

A heightened sense of responsibility, accountability, and integrity are more than just abstract concepts in the military workplace. They are demonstrable values that all troops are expected to take seriously and by which they are expected to live and operate 24/7. But such character assets may not be evident on a resume and may be overlooked by employers or potential employers who are not familiar with military culture.

With veterans, employers are guaranteed a pool of job candidates who have gone through one of the most rigorous training programs in professionalism allowable by law – literally.

During each service branch’s initial entry training, new military recruits are forced to learn discipline, professional etiquette and courtesies, and excruciating attention to detail, in addition to basic combat, self defense, medical, and other necessary military skills. Their training is rough, unforgiving, and at times can even be perceived as abusive to the mind and body. But it works, turning typical youth into atypical, disciplined, accountable, responsible, respectable, and respectful adults capable of carrying the weight of a nation on their shoulders.

It is the emphasis on instilling and reinforcing the importance of integrity and personal responsibility of which private sector employers should take note. What other prior employer so thoroughly integrates meaningful values into its training and ongoing operations?

From the seven Army values (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage) to the three traditional Navy and Marine Corps values (honor, courage, and commitment) to the Air Force’s three core values (integrity, service, and excellence) to the Coast Guard’s similar trio of values (honor, respect, and devotion to duty), variations of these timeless mores are guaranteed to have been deeply ingrained into the personal and professional development of a veteran job applicant for at least the length of his or her military career.

This sort of solid character doesn’t come standard in job applicants anymore, but it is still widespread among service members and veterans. While you can teach the specific skills required for most jobs to eager learners, employers cannot put new hires through their own values boot camp to build character. Veterans, however, come pre-equipped with this esoteric benefit.

Over the years, I have had the distinct honor and pleasure of getting to know thousands of troops and veterans. From my short time in the military as a very young man to the six years I spent fighting for the civil rights of members of the military with a service members’ advocacy organization to my current billet with the first and largest organization for new veterans, I have seen the level of integrity and type of character that these squared away men and women posses en mass.

I can say, without reservation, that I would be proud to recommend a new veteran for employment any day of the week.

Using Troops & Veterans as Pawns Is So #Over

Parties, politicians and “strategists” need to evolve their thinking and messaging and understand that using troops and veterans as pawns in political fights is amateur, transparent, and so last century.

 

Throughout the government shutdown saga, one group was consistently but involuntarily on the front lines – veterans. Although the misuse and abuse of veterans as political pawns by both parties is by no means a new phenomenon, it reached new heights during the most recent political showdown.

From politicians showing up as veterans tried to visit their own memorials to pundits and fringe groups upstaging veterans who were trying to join together and rally, veterans have once again found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of political opportunists.

During the shutdown, the Republican National Committee began lobbing robocalls into the states and districts of vulnerable Democrats and Democrat leadership. But the script sounded like it was taken straight out of Political Influence for Dummies, in the literal sense of the title.

“Senator X and Senate Democrats think this shutdown is a game. They are playing politics by cutting off our veterans and their benefits… These men and women served our country with honor and yet Senator X would rather put partisan politics ahead of honoring our commitment to the people who defended this country…”

At the same time, Democrats were holding up the threat of veterans not receiving their compensation and benefits as a classic case of how the shutdown was hurting Americans, yet they refused to even consider House-passed legislation that would have funded the VA and at least taken those to whom we have sacred commitments out of the political fray.

These tactics are not only shameful, but they represent an outdated strategic mindset. The merit, or lack thereof, of the claims aside, the American electorate is much more sophisticated today than these tactics presume. Rather than sway opinions, simpleton messages such as these make even sympathetic voters roll their eyes. They also reinforce Americans’ frustrations with politics and give good public servants and political operatives a bad name by association.

Last week, a formal coalition of the nation’s largest military and veterans associations held a rare joint press conference at the World War Two memorial on the National Mall to speak for themselves. The coalition had a simple but serious message – stop the political games and end the government shutdown immediately. But behind this primary message was an implicit secondary message that was communicated in advance and strictly enforced during the event – politicians and political stunts are not welcome.

Service members and veterans are tired of being referenced and trotted out by politicians when it’s politically convenient, and then forgotten or only paid lip service to when real policy changes are needed to help them. The American public is tired of seeing this abuse over and over again too. They’re attuned to it, it doesn’t score political points, it doesn’t get votes, and it’s just tacky.

In the 21st century, these cheap shots and stunts will only backfire on politicians, candidates, and political parties. They all need to evolve their tactics, strategies, and messaging if they want to really support and honor veterans.

America Has Already Defaulted – On Troops and Veterans

Defense One, the all-defense site by The Atlantic Media Group, featured this new op-ed arguing that while Congress, the administration, and pundits argue over whether the U.S. will default on its debt obligations and what the impact of that default will be, they’re all forgetting that we have already defaulted on our obligations to U.S. troops and veterans by failing to ensure that they were insulated from the political wrangling.

Despite troop pay bills, partial advance appropriations for the VA, and other temporary fixes intended to help shield this population from fallout, some troops haven’t gotten paid, some VA services and processes have stopped, and everyone is confused and gravely concerned about their own stability and livelihoods. This amounts to a default on our obligation to respect and care for our troops and vets, as I elaborate upon in this piece.

The Biggest Battle Ahead

When Congress returns to Washington in September, the political establishment will be sharply focused on the looming battle over the federal budget. In all likelihood, no consensus will be found and a continuing resolution will be required to continue funding the government.

As part of this year’s budget battle, some conservatives are drawing a line in the sand and suggesting that the government may not be funded at all unless the president’s signature first-term policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare), is defunded. While this outcome is unlikely, the fight over this issue among Republicans is sure to be fierce.

But a potentially greater battle is brewing over proposals to address the sexual assault crisis within the military. The battle lines have been drawn by proponents of the leading reform proposals, and much like their own political campaigns, outside groups are stepping forward to throw the punches while the politicians stick to civil but vigorous public debate.

With the estimated number of incidents of unwanted sexual contact within the military climbing back up to over 26,000 last year, lawmakers and advocates have grown impatient with senior defense leaders. After 25 years of promises of reform, commitments to crack down, and continuous refrains of “zero tolerance,” the problem appears to be continuing unabated at best, and possibly worsening.

High profile incidents involving the very personnel charged with preventing sexual assault in some branches and on some installations allegedly committing sexual assaults themselves have incensed lawmakers, advocates, and the public and underscored the Pentagon’s inability to get the crisis under control. Now, Congress is stepping in to mandate more fundamental reforms, and there is decreasing patience and tolerance for the Pentagon’s pleas for the more aggressive reform factions within Congress to slow their roll.

Everyone in Congress seems to agree that the status quo of the military’s sexual assault policy is not cutting it anymore, but that is where widespread agreement ends. Where to go next and how to go about reforming the way the military deals with and prosecutes sexual assault cases is where the real battle begins.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) crafted and introduced a bold proposal, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), that would take all crimes for which the punishment could be more than one year in confinement and that are not specifically military in nature, and  transfer the disposition authority for those crimes (i.e., the decision of whether to send the case to trial) to a cadre of professional military prosecutors. This would effectively remove from both the victim’s and the alleged perpetrator’s chain of command the ability and responsibility to decide whether a reported case of sexual assault – or any other serious crime – is prosecuted.

Senator Gillibrand, whose proposal is supported by a coalition of victim advocacy groups as well as a few veterans organizations (full disclosure: IAVA, the organization for which I work, is a proponent of the MJIA), asserts that her proposal solves one of the main problems that many victims say keep them from reporting sexual assaults committed against them – their fear that the chain of command responsible for deciding whether to prosecute the case will find a way to rationalize not moving the case forward. In other words, they are reluctant to report and experience potential blowback (harassment, retaliation, ostracization, career obstruction, etc.) if nothing may be done in the end anyway.

Senator Gillibrand’s legislation is opposed by senior defense leaders, who would prefer to see that disposition authority stay within the chain of command. Instead, the Pentagon is supporting an alternative legislative proposal sponsored by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) that would keep this decision point within the chain of command but add automatic higher level review, up to and including the secretary of the service concerned, in cases where a Staff Judge Advocate recommends prosecution of a sexual assault case but the commander refuses to send the case to court-marital.

This proposal is also championed by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a former civilian prosecutor. Senator McCaskill is known for being tough on the Defense Department for its failures to adequately address the sexual assault epidemic, and she is the only member of the Senate to have actually prosecuted sexual assault cases herself. She believes, however, that taking disposition authority out of the chain of command would actually result in fewer prosecutions of sexual assault and, therefore, continue to reinforce victims’ perception that perpetrators are not being brought to justice.

In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that under the current chain of command-dominated system, the Army had prosecuted 49 cases of sexual assault within the last two years that civilian prosecutors had declined to prosecute. Marine Corps commanders had referred another 28 cases to court-martial that civilian prosecutors passed on trying.

This, supporters of Senator Levin’s proposal argue, demonstrates why keeping disposition authority within the chain of command is important. Professional prosecutors, including military prosecutors, make decisions about whether to send a case to trial or court-martial based on factors such as the weighing of evidence, the likelihood of conviction, and the interests of the government. Commanders, however, may opt to send a “he said, she said” case to trial to let a judge or jury explore and decide the facts more thoroughly, or just to send a message throughout his or her unit that the military is serious about combatting sexual assault.

Supporters of Senator Gillibrand’s proposal still maintain that higher-level review of cases in which commanders decline to prosecute is not enough to restore victims’ faith and trust in the system and encourage them to come forward and report these types of crimes in greater numbers. They also fear that the intense focus on sexual assault from above could result in perpetrators going free because of undue command influence, an unfortunate dilemma that has already started to appear as an issue in some ongoing cases. This uniquely military objection to a conviction or sentence might have been avoided in these cases by having an independent military prosecutor decide whether to send them to trial.

With the stakes so high and the issue politically ripe this year, the battle over the best structural reform solution is heating up. Just before the August recess, Senator Gillibrand announced that she now has seven Republicans on board with supporting her proposal. She has even managed to win over the likes of Tea Party conservatives like Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), in addition to more traditional conservative Republicans such as David Vitter (R-LA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

This sets up a unique showdown for the Senate going into the post-recess period. By November, the massive defense spending and policy bill through which one of these proposals will likely pass is expected to move on the floor of both chambers.

However, unlike most other battles that break along party lines, or the upcoming battle over whether to shut down the government if ObamaCare is defunded, which is set to split only the Republican caucus, the battle over how to restore trust in the military justice system among sexual assault survivors and their advocates and ensure that perpetrators are adequately and fairly prosecuted is set to split both parties and forge new bipartisan alliances behind competing proposals.

Fortunately for reform advocates, change in some form is virtually guaranteed and the status quo is all but dead. But the true measure of success will be the objective numbers reported the following year. Will there continue to be such a huge divide between the estimated incidents of unwanted sexual contact and victim reports of those incidents? Or will future battles over more fundamental reforms be necessary to finally get this problem under control?

Defense One: Time to Treat the VA’s Problems as DOD’s Problems

Defense One, the new all-defense site by The Atlantic Media Group, featured a new opinion piece I authored arguing that the VA’s issues and struggles should be viewed through a military readiness lens, given that Americans will factor the potential post-service experience into their decision calculus on whether or not to volunteer to serve in the armed forces. As a result, the VA’s problems are also DOD’s problems.

“By now it should be clear: The VA’s miscalculations and letdowns over the past decade are not just a VA problem; they are the Department of Defense’s problem, as well. Although the two may be administratively distinct, the fate of each is intimately tied into the other in a circle of recruitment, service and care, and the impact of what happens at each stage of that cycle on future recruitment.”

Read the entire piece over at Defense One.

The Hill: The VA’s backlogs epidemic

Last week, The Hill ran an op-ed I wrote for their Congress Blog about the multi-dimensional backlog problem at the VA, beyond the regular claims backlog that everyone already knows about and which the VA has sought recently to redefine. Check out the full piece here, but here’s the gist:

Backlog #1: 

“Everyone in Congress knows by now that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a massive claims backlog problem that has outraged the American public…”

Backlog #2: 

“However, as the VA makes one step forward in one area, it is making two steps backward in another, as the backlog of claims appeals is now growing to a staggering level…”

Backlog #3:

“Equally frustrating for Congress, however, is yet another growing VA backlog – the VA’s backlog of information requests from members of Congress….”

For more on the individual veterans stuck in backlogs 1 & 2, visit The Wait We Carry. For more on the congressional info requests comprising backlog 3, visit Trials in Transparency.

The Faces of the Post-War Fallen

suicidefallenI have a confession. I find myself haunted by the faces of the fallen. But not those who have been killed action in our nation’s wars, but those who have been killed after returning from war – killed by their own hand.

The thought of war haunts us all,  but we expect and anticipate a certain amount of death and injury to come as a result of war. While we may have been ill prepared for many aspects of the wars we elected to wage over the past decade, we certainly knew that casualties would be a predictable result of those conflicts.

However, we as a nation were not prepared for the epidemic of casualties among those who returned safe and alive from the foreign war zones. Almost every hour, a veteran or service member takes his or her own life. On the active duty and reserve side alone, while war continues to rage abroad, more troops are being lost to suicide at home than to combat abroad.

We think our troops are safe when they make it back home from war alive. We think they have made it back unscathed if they return and appear to be in one piece. But what we cannot see often is that behind the facade of one whole body is a mind and psyche shattered into a thousand pieces.

American service men and women are tough, and they are trained to pull it together and put other things first before their own well being – country, duty, family. But what we may not realize is that the war they fought may be continuing to rage on in their minds and in their post-war lives just out of the view of outside observers, and sometimes even outside of the view of those who know these vets best or are trained to recognize and treat mental trauma.

The post-war, self-imposed demise of those who appear normal and live and operate among us haunts me most because what it really means is potentially that none of them is safe even after returning home physically intact. While they may be safe from the external threats of enemies and IEDs and sniper fire and rocket attacks, they may still not be safe from the internal demons and enemies that infect and besiege the many who have been hit by mental trauma-inducing experiences.

The suicide of Iraq War veteran Clay Hunt shook the foundation of the veterans advocacy community because Clay had been a part of that community for so long. He was an active member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a participant with Team Rubicon. He had access to the knowledge and resources that are supposed to serve as buffers against the demons and internal enemies, yet he succumbed to them anyway. The harrowing thought that reverberated through the veterans community in the wake of Clay’s death was that if it could happen to Clay, it could literally happen to anyone.

The things we cannot see often worry us least, but impact us most. Even the most educated and sympathetic among us too often dismiss or diminish possible “invisible” pathologies because it is still so easy to do. But think of how many countless men, women, and children died from infection and disease until the medical community embraced the possibility of minute invisible killers, and antibiotics and sterilization procedures became commonplace.

When the war in Afghanistan finally ends and the last American service member returns home, the trauma of that war will rage on. Who it will take out and when, it is hard to predict. Years later, those who served will still be in harm’s way back home, and the duty will fall upon the public to help watch their backs.

The ‘Good Order & Discipline’ Auto-Block in Making Military Policy

dempseyjcs[Editor's Note: This article also appeared on The Huffington Post on Monday, June 24th.] Good order and discipline have been the refrain of the military service chiefs over the past few weeks as our most senior uniformed leaders testified strongly against proposals to allow professional military prosecutors to make prosecutorial decisions on serious offenses committed within the ranks.

But the insufficiency of this catch phrase as justification for opposing policy changes on issues of critical importance to our nation sound eerily familiar to those of us involved in previous efforts to change military policies that were likewise opposed due to “good order and discipline. “

Had we blindly obeyed, in response to the tactical deployment of this catch phrase in the past, we would not have integrated units, we would not have such a wide array of military occupational specialties open to women, and troops could still be fired if they were discovered to be gay or lesbian.

All of these changes in military policy took place against the recommendation of many senior defense leaders and under the threat that such changes would negatively impact good order and discipline and impair the ability of military commanders — and the military as a whole — to function.

We now know, however, that each of these changes not only did not corrode military and command capabilities, but instead greatly enhanced the capability and reputation of our armed forces and the ability of individual service members to serve without added fear and stress.

Currently, the authority to decide whether to charge an alleged perpetrator with a crime, as well as the authority to arbitrarily overturn convictions, lies with individual commanders who are not lawyers. Staff Judge Advocates can certainly make recommendations to commanders on whether or not to prosecute, but ultimate convening authority in courts-martial cases still lies within the chain of command.

This set-up has proven to be especially problematic for victims of sexual assault, who anecdotally report that their fear that the chain of command may not always take them seriously serves as a disincentive to report sexual assault and rape.

This means that the basic problem at issue is trust, and so the solution must be one that increases trust and confidence that accusations will be taken seriously, that victims will be protected, and that alleged perpetrators will be investigated and prosecuted. Whatever the solution that Congress decides to support, it must address the core issue of trust in the chain of command and in the system of military justice.

Good order and discipline are indeed on the line, but less because of proposed updates and modernizations to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and more because far too many survivors of sexual assault and rape, not to mention the American public, have found “military justice” to have been an oxymoron in far too many cases.

Egypt & Syria: The Tie That Binds No More

syrian flag[Editor's Note: This article also appeared on the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 16th.] Over the weekend, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced that he was cutting all ties with Syria, to include unilaterally ending the long-maintained diplomatic relationship between the two Arab countries and closing Egypt’s embassy in Damascus.

This drastic step by one of the Arab region’s most populous and influential countries could signal a sharp turning point in the drawn out Syrian civil war, as we could now realistically see defections in support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from other Arab neighbors. It is even conceivable that forces fighting against the Assad government could even receive direct military assistance from those neighbors, not to mention the United States. This, after all, was similar to the trajectory of the conflict in Libya that brought on the fall of that country’s long-time dictator.

But what is unique about the Egyptian-Syrian relationship, unlike the relationship between nearly any other set of Arab countries, is just how far it has now fallen with this cutting of diplomatic ties.

In 1958, as part of a movement toward pan-Arabism that was sweeping the region, Egypt and Syria jointly agreed to actually merge their two independent and sovereign states into one country called the United Arab Republic. Egypt’s president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a famous champion of both the regional pan-Arab movement and the global non-aligned movement, presided over the new union until its dissolution just over three and one-half years later.

Although tensions existed between Damascus and Cairo during the brief period of union, the two countries’ 1961 divorce did not significantly weaken their relationship. Egypt and Syria went on to fight two more wars together against their common neighbor Israel (they had fought two previous wars together prior to their union, the first in 1948 upon Israel’s founding and the second in 1956), and have widely been regarded as strong strategic, diplomatic, cultural, and political allies ever since.

The only major strategic and political difference between the two countries since 1979 has been the successful negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, a stability-inducing move which Syria to this day has failed to replicate. Now it appears that the chasm between these historic Arab allies has just greatly deepened and the bridge over that chasm has been demolished.

Given the carousel of shifting political alliances throughout the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is quite likely that Egyptian-Syrian relations will be promptly restored following the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a successor government in Syria. Until then, the tie that once bound Egypt and Syria – for a brief period more than metaphorically – binds no more.

A Cut Too Deep? Benefits in the Spotlight as Defense Cuts Loom

020813-N-3642E-526We don’t often hear arguments in favor of cutting the defense budget, especially from the defense community itself. We don’t usually hear such arguments from conservatives either. When we do come across such rhetoric, it tends to focus on ultra-costly advanced weapons systems and extra ships or extra fighter jets or extra engines for fighter jets that we may or may not need. And the rhetoric tends to come from more liberal elements outside of the defense establishment.

However, we have recently begun to hear calls for spending slowdowns and rollbacks coming from within the Pentagon itself as well as from conservatives outside of the Pentagon. This shift rhetorical sourcing is perhaps significant, and signals the new direction of things to come both defense-wise and budget-wise.

For several years, former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta called for the elimination of wasteful defense spending, such as the funding of an extra or “alternate” engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter. No other military aircraft has an “alternate” engine and the extra engine program was largely seen as simply an employment welfare program for the home districts of many members of congress. The President even threatened to veto the entire defense authorization bill if Congress included a provision to force the Pentagon to spend an extra half-billion dollars on the project.

More recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has issued warnings that Congress and the Administration must get rising defense personnel costs under control or we risk seeing readiness capabilities compromised. This call represents a new development, as personnel-related accounts, including retiree pay and benefits and DOD-subsidized perks such as commissaries and post/base exchanges, have traditionally been off-limits to even discussion of cuts lest said talkers be accused of not supporting “the troops.”

Now, talk of measured and smart cuts to even the sacrosanct personnel-related accounts is brewing. This weekend, two Washington Post articles came out on the same day, June 1st, and by the same writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the growing Concerned Veterans of America group/movement and about members of the Defense Business Board questioning the continued business rationality of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Both articles are good reads (the first a much quicker one that the second), but the article on the commissary battles is a particularly fascinating and in-depth piece that presents an historical narrative on par with its argument in favor of shuttering most domestic commissaries and exchanges. Other implications in this lengthy piece, however, are perhaps less viable from the moral standpoint, such as the seeming suggestion both enlisted and officer pay is already generous enough.

No matter what one things should be cut, it has become clear that government spending cuts are needed and inevitable. It is also becoming a given that cuts to the defense budget are on the way, although which accounts should be cut and which should be saved remain up for debate. These articles are forwarding that debate, so we should expect more from the Post, Rajiv, CVA, and, of course, DefensePolicy.org on this evolving hot button topic.