The 2016 election is just weeks away, after a whirlwind year, during which more than 20 candidates sought to serve in the highest office in the land. Now, we’ve narrowed it down to just two main candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The challenges and responsibilities imposed on the office of the presidency are enormous. The coming weeks will be devoted to debating which candidate has the experience, perspective, and vision to tackle them.
Here’s our contribution to that question, as it pertains to veterans affairs.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent report, there are more than 21.3 million American veterans, a majority of whom are predicted to cast ballots in the 2016 election. In fact, nearly 70% of veterans voted in the last presidential election.
Up until recently, this voting population received little substantive attention from either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. However, on Sept. 7, the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America hosted a veterans town hall on NBC, which sparked a national conversation about the treatment of service members and veterans. Currently, Trump leads Clinton 55% to 36% among voters who are now or have previously served in the U.S. military.
To identify the key policy issues that directly impact the military community most significantly this election, Task & Purpose interviewed Raymond Kelley, Carlos Fuentes, and Ryan Gallucci, who serve on the legislative team for the veteran service organization, Veterans of Foreign Wars. VFW offered seven topics that voters should be paying attention to as they decide who they want as their next commander-in-chief. These areas are key concerns for veterans across America, and a candidate’s platform often lays the foundation for his or her relationship with the military when he or she takes on that role.
After discussing each of these areas thoroughly with VFW, we then spoke with representatives from both the Clinton and Trump campaigns about their plans for veterans and their families. Clinton’s platform was represented by Army veteran Bishop Garrison and policy adviser Laura Rosenberger, while veterans director Matt Miller spoke on behalf of the Trump campaign.
While VFW holds the following six issues in high regard, each of those policy areas are ultimately contingent on the federal budget. It all comes back to sequestration. And as such, the organization is a strong advocate of needs-based budgets, not arbitrary budget caps for the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Clinton position: “Ending the sequester something that is really important for our military,” Rosenberger said. Arbitrary cuts hurt the military and its readiness.
In her platform, Clinton has said, “We must go further by ending the sequester for both defense and nondefense spending in a balanced way, and prioritizing full-funding and advance appropriations for the entire Department of Veterans Affairs.”
However, Rosenberger and Garrison added that they could not provide details about where that funding might come from, whether it would be raised taxes or redistribution of the federal budget.
The Trump position: The Trump campaign described its primary concern as restoring the national economy, which will create a more robust market and bigger federal budget. It can then work to restore combat readiness.
Trump suggested Sept. 7 that the increase in defense spending would come from cuts in waste and streamlining bureaucracy, but it isn’t clear how that will impact veterans.
“The goal would be to reshape the military,” Miller said. When asked where the money to do that will come from, he added, “I can’t create policy.”
Post-9/11 GI Bill
There have been numerous attempts to cut back on GI Bill spending through various congressional bills in recent years. VFW said they have strongly advocated against such actions. Its legislative team said that all the components of the original Post-9/11 GI Bill need to be protected as part of the government’s promise to the volunteer force. In addition, the organization believes the Department of Veterans Affairs should expand the type of active-duty orders that count toward eligibility and ensure the future viability of the program’s funding.
The Clinton position: The Clinton administration wants to make the Post-9/11 GI Bill a lasting part of our social contract with those who serve, according to her platform. And it should not be altered. “She believes the GI Bill is critical,” Rosenberger said.
Additionally, at a VFW convention in July, Clinton said, “I will protect, preserve, and defend the post 9/11 GI Bill. It has opened doors of opportunity to more than 1 million veterans and family members.”
The Trump position: “We have to continue honoring the promise we made to veterans. That should be the number one objective” Miller said, adding that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is included in that promise.
However, in an interview where Chris Cuomo asked Trump if he supports the GI Bill, he replied, “No. I want to bring jobs back to our country.”
Dependents’ Education Benefits
Cutting any portion of the Post-9/11 GI BIll, including basic allowance for housing, or dependent housing allowance, is not acceptable, VFW said. However, the organization acknowledged that this is contingent on sequestration. While there may need to be improvements or changes to these programs, they should not come at expense of dependents.
The Clinton position: The Clinton platform does not support cutting any benefits that a currently stipulated under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and intends to work with Congress to pass legislation that bolsters existing benefits, preserves and extends family transferability — including non-traditional families. She doesn’t believe in chipping away at the bill in any way, Rosenberger said.
The Trump position: Miller reiterated the need to protect the promises made to service members, adding, “Dependents’ benefits are included in that.” While Trump has not directly addressed dependents’ education benefits, he has ensured veterans that he will work to keep all the promises made to them when they joined the military.
Not all veterans have the desire to attend a traditional college, VFW said. Many states want to approve more vocational schools, but the institutions need to prove their credibility in order to be eligible for GI Bill funding. In addition, “vocational rehabilitation for employment should have no limit, now it expires after 12 years,” Gallucci said. “That limit should be lifted.”
The Clinton position: As with for-profit schools, vocational schools need to meet educational standards and provide adequate job training, Rosenberger said.
The Trump position: “Whichever best suits the veterans,” Miller said. “But we need to ensure that schools do not take advantage of veterans.”
Applying Credits or Licenses to Transferrable Skills
“This is important, but it isn’t necessarily a legislative issue,” Kelley said. It depends on the school. Right now, VFW is working on federal licensing for veterans skills transferability, but for state programs, it gets more complicated because you can’t force a state to accept federal training as adequate.
The Clinton position: The Clinton plan supports the transfer of skills earned in the military to the civilian world. “Whether its apprenticeship or college credits, there’s some specificity that we need to worked on. But it’s of the utmost importance that we ensure that the training they receive in the military is respected and we do what we can to make sure they get credit for it,” Garrison said.
The Trump position: “We want to work with states to make sure that accreditation and certificates for service members — that they earned — that they qualify for transferrable or similar civilian sector employment,” Miller said. Whether it’s making federal certificates transferrable among states, or applying course credit for military skills to educational institutions.
VFW said it hopes the next administration will take responsibility for providing a quality education for veterans, and recourse against bad actors — for-profit colleges, for example. The next administration needs to prevent veterans from slipping through the cracks, and recoup benefits if a school loses accreditation.
The Clinton position: The Clinton campaign does not support schools that use fraudulent methods to obtain federal aid. Her platform also supports closing the 90/10 gap, which bars for-profit colleges from receiving more than 90% of their revenues from Department of Education Title IV federal student aid, but does not include GI Bill money in that 90%. “She believes we should really fight back against schools that prey on veterans,” Rosenberger said.
The Trump position: The Trump administration wants to hold all for-profit schools accountable, Miller said. “Their degrees should mean something,” he added. At one point, however, Trump started a for-profit college known as Trump University, which closed in 2010. Since then, the school has been involved in several ongoing lawsuits and has also been investigated and criticised for abusing federal resources.
The Department of Veterans Affairs
After surveying veterans, VFW put out a framework for VA health care reform in early 2016. It contended that in order to provide the necessary care to veterans, VA must restructure the veterans health care delivery system; redesign the systems and procedures that facilitate access to health care; realign the provision and allocation of VA’s resources to reflect the mission; and reform VA’s culture with workforce innovations and real accountability.
The Clinton position: The Clinton administration plans to address VA health care issues by modernizing it, holding its employees accountable, and blocking any attempts to privatize. “The VA needs to be strengthened, not privatized,” Rosenberger added. However, the Clinton administration does acknowledge the need to encourage private partnerships, provide better care coordination, and focus on bringing the VA into the 21st century.
Her plan aims to modernize and refocus the full spectrum of veterans’ benefits across the federal government; overhaul VA governance to create a new veteran-centric model of excellence; and empower veterans and strengthen the economy and communities by connecting their unique skills to growing job fields.
The Trump position: In July, the Trump administration released its 10-point plan to fix the VA. Under this plan, Trump plans to appoint a new VA secretary; fire incompetent VA employees; create a private White House hotline, which will be active 24 hours a day; allow veterans to choose private care in lieu of the VA; increase the number of mental health care professionals; and modernize the VA technologically.
“Accountability must be demanded of VA leaders,” Miller said. “The 10-point plan puts veterans first.”
Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury
Access and knowledge are the best ways to combat these issues. Those veterans that know their benefits and have access to treatment options are able to proactively tackle PTSD and traumatic-brain injury, which may also prevent suicide associated with either of these conditions. In addition, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges should be cared for, not neglected by the VA.
The Clinton position: In terms of the overall plan, this is an area where veterans need proper care and proper protection under the VA. However, regarding implementation, Rosenberger added, “We’re still working on the specifics.”
The Trump position: Trump’s veterans care reform plan makes specific mention of treatment for PTSD and TBI. “A key component of the 10-point plan is to place more resources in education, training, and hiring mental health professionals,” Miller said. According to Trump’s platform, more funding will “support research on best practices and state of the art treatments to keep our veterans alive, healthy and whole. With these steps, the Trump plan will help the veteran community put the unnecessary stigma surrounding mental health behind them and instead encourage acceptance and treatment in our greater society.”
The VA recently released a report that shows increased suicide rates for veterans who haven’t sought care or stayed connected with the VA or the veterans community at-large. “Access is key,” Gallucci said. So a lack of resources — like nearby doctors or medical facilities — or an overarching inability to connect with the VA, contribute to the heightened rates of veteran suicide.
The Clinton position: “The suicide epidemic is an incredible tragedy,” Garrison said. He added that throughout her career — as first lady, senator, and secretary of State — Clinton has a proven record of caring for veterans specifically in this area. Clinton’s platform says she plans to increase funding for mental health providers, expand programs targeted at providing effective mental health treatment, and promoting better prescriber and treatment practices.
The Trump position: According to Miller, in addition to hiring and better training mental health professionals, the best way to really address veteran suicide is to get families involved in helping loved ones who may be struggling. The Trump administration also plans to establish a 24/7 veterans hotline at the White House, Miller added, “for people to call up and expose problems they’re having with the VA.” In terms of access to resources, Trump’s platform calls for embedding satellite VA clinics within rural hospitals and other care facilities.
Gold Star Families
VFW said it feels very strongly that survivor benefits must be protected. The government must keep its promise to care for the families of service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Moreover, education benefits for survivors must be protected and expanded.
The Clinton position: “When she was a senator, she worked very hard to provide benefits increases for survivors benefits,” Rosenberger said, adding that this is an area where she has a long-standing record of working across party lines and will continue to do so as president.
The Trump position: Both Gold and Blue Star families should be taken care of, Miller said. He again made reference to promises the government makes to the men and women of the armed forces, and said that we owe it to veterans to care for their loved ones if something happens to them. “Those families who paid the ultimate sacrifice should have our respect,” he added.
A major issue for Blue Star families across the country is spouse unemployment. Military families often need a second income to afford cost of living. One solution proposed by VFW is to give families more say in location when they are permanently changing stations, Kelley said, so that spouses can apply for work in their fields. The organization has also advocated for the military to offer geographical hiring preference — this would allow spouses to apply to jobs in a location prior to permanent change of station.
The Clinton position: According to the platform, the Clinton plan would expand spousal employment support and training initiatives both during active duty, and after the transition into the civilian world. “The only way we’re going to be able to help these families stay afloat is to increase and widen the benefits that are available to spouses,” Garrison added. The Clinton campaign also supports allowing families to PCS separately if a move interrupts a dependent’s training or education program.
The Trump position: “They shouldn’t have to want for a job,” Miller said. The Trump administration believes any spouse who wants a job should be able to get one, and it supports programs that aid in spouse employment.
Job Services For Separating Service Members
The transition assistance program has been very successful at connecting veterans to civilian employment opportunities, when they have knowledge of and access to it, Kelley said. But VFW said it believes that employment benefits should be expanded, because service members should have access prior to separation, during separation, and for the rest of their lives, regardless of where they live.
The Clinton position: The Clinton platform includes plans to “expand tax credits for veterans’ employment, strengthen veteran entrepreneurship programs, and create pathways for service members to enter growing career fields.” She will also protect veterans from discrimination and predatory companies. According to Garrison, “We’re going to continue to expand programs that are available to veterans.” That also includes supporting veteran service organizations that connect veterans with jobs or other employment resources.
The Trump position: “One unemployed veteran is one too many,” Miller said. The Trump campaign supports a plan that allows service members to use the last six months before they retire or separate to pursue internships or try out a field where they might be interested in working. In addition, Miller reiterated the campaign’s support for states that allow service members to transfer skills or certificates into the civilian world as well.
According to VFW, the military needs to become a more competitive employer in order to retain the talent it cultivates. Especially in a time of downsizing, the government must keep the benefits and services it promised to those who volunteered. For those that are retained, pay, retirement, and healthcare must be adequate, and opportunities for upward mobility must be presented. In addition, talent and training must be cultivated from E-1 and O-1. The senior staff of the military should not consist of “last-man standing,” Kelley said.
The Clinton position: The Clinton campaign commended the Pentagon for making great strides in recent years to provide bonuses, promotions, and benefits for service members. “[The military] always has been one of the greatest meritocracies,” Garrison said. A lot of what will need to be done over the next several years to retain the talent is to consider service members’ livelihoods and their families.
The Trump position: “You keep your promises,” Miller said. “That’s the number one thing.” In order to retain talent, he added, the military must be able to offer a life that is comparable to civilian counterparts.
The pension program should be similar to retirement programs in the civilian world — something resembling a blended pension and 401-k system. It needs to be robust but also flexible, and it should be funding enough to take care of the veterans who served no matter what their needs may be. In the future, veterans should also be able to extend pension or retirement to a beneficiary, Kelley added.
The Clinton position: The Clinton plan will support the notion that improving benefits for veterans also improves readiness. “She envisions working with Congress and service to ensure ongoing improvements to the system,” Rosenberger said.
The Trump position: “We have to look at programs that empower veterans to plan earlier in their career for retirement,” Miller said. He added, however, that preparing veterans for civilian employment is key as well.
This area is finally moving in the right direction, but it isn’t 100% fixed yet, Kelley said. The prevention method is where the government should focus its attention, because veterans shouldn’t have to become homeless to receive aid. Instead, mental health, medical care, and employment services should keep veterans from ever ending up on the streets, Fuentes said.
The Clinton position: The Clinton platform aims to protect veterans with mental health issues, medical conditions, and those that seeking jobs, in an effort to cut down on homelessness. Some of that homelessness is attributed to the ambiguous language in the Fair Housing Act, which is meant to protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. “We’re talking a combination of factors that will be utilized to address the issue,” Garrison said.
The Trump position: The Trump campaign believes that the mayors of most major cities have done a good job of addressing homelessness in recent years and should be commended. However, as with veteran unemployment, Miller added, “One homeless veteran is one too many.” Additionally, Trump’s platform would look at mental health and employment resources as a means to stave of homelessness.
Diversity in the Military
The military is often a catalyst for change, especially in the area of integration, whether that is gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. VFW supports the military putting the uniform first, but Fuentes and Kelley added that with a diversifying force, it is important to take into account the needs of the individuals who volunteer to serve.
The Clinton position: According to her platform, Clinton plans to adopt inclusive personnel policies, which will combat military sexual assault and harassment; integrate women into all military positions; and support transgender Americans to serve openly in the military. “I think you’re going to continue see Secretary Clinton working hand-in-hand with the services to ensure that we have a most prosperous, diverse group of candidates coming into the military,” Garrison said.
The Trump position: “Diversity of all types is a key component,” Miller said. And the Trump administration believe that diversity is important so long as it doesn’t compromise readiness. However, this is an area which has not been widely discussed within the campaign.
Second Oath: Veterans Serving the Community After They Separate
Veterans are more likely to be involved in their local communities than their civilian counterparts. It is important to encourage those who served in the armed forces can continue to volunteer in first responder, local government, and community leadership positions, because a call to service is often lifelong, Fuentes said. VFW, as a veteran service organization, partners with other groups and local communities to foster veterans ability to serve after they leave the military.
The Clinton position: “There are a variety of ways to do this,” Garrison said. “Society benefits whenever we leverage the experiences of veterans as much as we can.” Many veterans are service-oriented by nature, and the Clinton administration wants to give them every possible opportunity to continue to do that on federal, state, and local levels.
The Trump position: “This is one of the key duties of the President,” Miller said. “They are a unique and often overlooked asset.” He added that whoever is the next president needs to convey how important veteran service is, whether they go on to become politicians, law enforcement, or doctors. He suggested that the best way the government can honor them is to encourage them to become civic leaders when they retire from the military.
Honoring the Fallen
VFW suggested that civilian leaders who make decisions should consider service members’ lives and families when making decisions regarding budget and military engagements. In addition, the government should foster partnerships with veteran service organizations to care for the families of the fallen, and to honor the ultimate sacrifice made by veterans, whether through counseling services, or financial aid.
The Clinton position: “We’re going to work very closely with the community, with military leaders both current and retired … to determine what the best answers are on this,” Garrison said. The Clinton administration also plans to work closely with veteran service organizations to find the best ways to support families of the fallen and maintain the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Trump position: “There are few things as sacred as honoring the fallen,” Miller said. “We must make sure that those who have laid down their lives are never forgotten.” The Trump administration believe that in order to respect those who paid the ultimate sacrifice is to take care of their families, maintain the nation’s cemeteries, and keep their stories alive.