Conn. veterans could benefit from election
As veterans, Brian Swan and Andrew Lyon may experience more hardships than other students. One example: their college funds are sometimes not released until months after the semester begins.
Swan, a 7th-semester philosophy major who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2003 to 2009 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lyon, a 4th-semester physiology and neurobiology major who served in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army until December 2010, are two of some 23 million veterans in America today, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Many veterans experience numerous issues in adjusting to post-war life and they hope those who will be elected to office today will work to change veterans' plights.
Above all else, Lyon and Swan said politicians can help veterans by working to expand Veterans' Administration's resources.
"They've been growing incredibly over the last 10 years or so," Swan said of the VA. "But the approach doesn't account for the issues we've been seeing with the recent generation [of veterans]." Making information more available, and making responses to claims faster would be the best development, both said.
Both Swan and Lyon said they've been fortunate in their post-war experiences, but that does not mean there have been no hardships. Because funds meant to pay Swan's tuition didn't arrive for more than a month from the VA, he was forced to work 45 hours a week for a month at the beginning of the fall semester "just to pay his rent."
The Administration has been cited as a problem not only by Swan and Lyon, but by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of the state's 2nd District. The eastern Connecticut district includes UConn's Storrs campus. Courtney serves on the House Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for oversight of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Administration's delay and backlog in processing claims by veterans, some of whom may need immediate help, can be as long as four to six months, Courtney said, calling the problem one of the biggest issues for veterans today.
"This is something we have to get right," Courtney said. He added that a planned VA conversion to an electronic service is a step in the right direction, but the change should not have been as difficult as it has been.
Swan said he understands the Administration struggles to process claims for millions of veterans nationwide. "They just have so many claims and they don't have the manpower," he said.
Still, Swan and Lyon also said the Administration's inability to fully inform veterans about their benefits causes problems for many. Both men said the VA often distributes confusing information or, worse, fails to provide information. This impacts both younger and older veterans. Some vets aren't even made aware of the resources available to them.
However, veterans' current state of affairs is much better than a decade ago, thanks to recent legislation. Since Courtney was elected to office in 2006, there have been drastic improvements for veterans, in part thanks to his work with the House Armed Services Committee.
The representative said the most important boost veterans have received during his time in office was the post-9/11 GI bill of 2008, which restored benefits for veterans seeking to access higher education. Originally enacted after World War II to assist veterans, its value had declined over the years, Courtney said. But at the end of 2008, full educational benefits including tuition, housing stipends and increased eligibility were extended not just to veterans, but also to their families. Courtney called the bill "one of the great successes in American government."
Help provided by a 2011 housing tax credit was also cited by Courtney. It gives companies tax credits of up to $10,000 to hire veterans, helping to fight high unemployment rates. The jobless rate for all veterans is 6.3 percent, but for post-9/11 veterans the rate is 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Courtney said ESPN has a plan to hire 1,000 veterans and Electric Boat has also hired veterans. There are just two examples of Connecticut companies taking advantage of the credit.
At UConn, officials have worked to make college life easier for veterans, but some processes have not yet been replaced with improved processes, Lyon said. Things are getting better, but they aren't great, or, as Lyon put it, things are: "going from bad to not so bad."
Both Lyon and Swan said they are grateful for what's been done for them already and any shortcomings have been outweighed by successes. They are grateful to live in a modern culture that accepts and cares for them.
However, Courtney said there is more work to do on behalf of veterans. "Making sure we stay on top of progress we've already made and making sure veterans can transfer into civilian life" are the two largest remaining problems to be focused on, he said.
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