Veteran and servicemember advocates representing 33 organizations and over 5 million veterans, servicemembers, and their families will gather Tuesday at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to the government shutdown. Politicians and key Washington figureheads should take notice for one main reason: rarely do so many major military service and veteran groups join forces to spearhead a single initiative.
A unification of such groups is not unheard of, but rare at best. The last major push by a coalition of prominent groups in the military and veterans’ community was the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008. At the time, the country was befuddled with an economic crisis and programs with high dollar amounts in Congress were not welcomed with open arms. Arguably, many factors led to the support of the post-9/11 GI Bill, but pundits would be shortsighted if they did not acknowledge the role and power of a unified front among veteran and military service organization in the post-9/11 GI Bill being passed by Congress and ultimately supported by the president.
The government shutdown is now entering its third week and military veterans and their families are feeling the effects. The GI Bill hotline that supports veterans using education benefits is no longer being staffed. According to The American Legion website covering the government shutdown, 7,800 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees have been furloughed. Perhaps the most startling result from the shutdown was the elimination of death gratuity benefit payments to the families of fallen troops. The Department of Defense entered into a partnership with the Fisher House Foundation to fill the void of death gratuity benefits. Fortunately, in lackluster fashion, Congress hurried to pass legislation restoring the benefit that the president then signed into law. However, the effects of a prolonged government shutdown will be much worse.
Roughly $6 billion in disability compensation, pension and education payments to millions of Veterans will stop on November 1. The Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, warned of the long-term effects of a government shutdown in his testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week. Upwards of 5,600 veterans a day may not receive support for their disability claims and over 500,000 veterans and servicemembers will need to find other sources of support to fund their education and pay their rent. Other veteran organizations and nonprofit groups, like the Fisher House Foundation, have stepped up to fill the void of the government while they continue to squabble over political ideologies.
The government shutdown has left many veterans uncertain about the status of their benefits. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Student Veterans of America (SVA) are responding to GI Bill inquiries through a simple email program known as 1 Student Veteran. The GI Bill hotline remains offline due to the shutdown and many veterans are unable to get timely responses to their education benefits questions. Student veterans instead can email firstname.lastname@example.org and can expect a response within 24 hours or on the next regular business day. According to testimony submitted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), demand for their services has tripled since the government shutdown. Undoubtedly, other veteran groups and nonprofits are scrambling to fill crucial demands for programs and services.
The political posturing and constant rhetoric propagating out of Washington, from both sides of the aisle, has veteran and servicemember advocates beyond frustration. The White House and Congress should take careful notice of the rally being held tomorrow, regardless of attendance, although I expect it to be high. The government shutdown may have awakened the strongest coalition capable of ending partisan deadlock.