Military veterans across the country have a whole range of concerns this election season, from the high rate of suicide to special challenges for female vets. But like everyone else, they're especially concerned with health care and jobs.
The nation's obligations to some 2 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan pose a challenge for the next commander in chief. Unemployment for post-Sept. 11 vets is about 2 percentage points worse than the national average, and veterans want solutions.
In Orange Park, Fla., south of Jacksonville, a town built around Navy and Air Force bases, the VFW hall is smoky and loud with conversation among veterans from many different wars.
"I was with the Air Force Reserves," says Elisa Rosemond, "and my question is how you're going to help the troops coming home, active and reserve, find a job that they can support their families with?"
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed that issue in a speech to the American Legion in August: "To make it easier for veterans to find employment in skilled trades," he said, "I will work with the states to create a common credentialing and licensing standard, and encourage organizations to recognize and grant credit for military training."
President Obama said something similar at Fort Bliss, an Army base in Texas: "If you've been a medic in theater, you shouldn't have to start at nursing 101 if you decide you want to go into the medical profession here in the United States."
That's one issue Obama and Romney agree on: making it easier for vets to get credentials. There are other job initiatives — first lady Michelle Obama leads an effort to push companies to hire vets. And Romney says he will keep a larger military, retaining more people in the service and not out in the tough job market.
Health care and benefits — and the performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs — are the other big issues for veterans.
At the Orange Park VFW, retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Robert LeLacheur wanted to know, "What can be done to alleviate the backlog of cases that are awaiting decisions on benefits?"
Obama adviser Mike Breen, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, says the backlog is already being reduced and that improvements will continue.
"We saw the largest increase in VA funding in 30 years — that's why we're asking for more increases, that's why we're asking to automate a paper-and-pencil system and move that to computers, so he can get the benefits he's earned," Breen says. "Because he deserves to have those benefits, and he deserves to have them quickly."
The problem is that once a vet puts in a claim for a medical benefit, it can take months or years to get it taken care of. The VA is trying to get the average wait time down to 4 months, but it's not even meeting that goal.
Romney also supports moving to a paperless system, as his adviser Anthony Principi, a former secretary of the VA, explains: "We need to put things on the computer. We need to employ new technologies developed in the private sector, work hand in glove with the private sector to bring those solutions to the government," Principi says. "So, rather than deciding three claims a day or four claims a day, we can double that number with the right technology."
The campaigns aren't that far apart on what to do for veterans. Both candidates agree on the need — and even on some of the solutions. But there's one more similarity: Veterans advocates say neither candidate has offered enough in the way of specifics.
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