A national veterans foundation is needed, Bennet says

The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has taken up President Barack Obama’s initiative to help returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq find jobs at home. Bennet spoke at a local American Legion post in Denver on Monday, where he discussed plans for a national veterans foundation.

The foundation would act as a clearinghouse for veterans’ services and would be funded through private dollars. No federal funding would be required.

“It’s time to make sure that the other 99 percent of us are fully supporting all of you as we wind down these wars,” Bennet told the American Legion post on East Yale Avenue.

Obama has announced plans to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of the year and for all troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. An estimated 400 soldiers are coming home to Colorado in December alone, according to the Colorado Veterans Forum, convened in August to identify ways to make Colorado more cognizant of veterans’ needs. Colorado ranks 47th out of 48 states in funding services for veterans. The proposal for a national veterans foundation was discussed at the Forum.

The unemployment rate for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan spiked to 13.3 percent in June and hit 21.1 percent last year for veterans between the ages of 18-24. In Colorado, the unemployment rate for 18-24 year-old veterans in 2010 was 10.3 percent. Veterans are estimated to represent one quarter of all the homeless in the country.

Kisa Bushyeager, a veteran who served in Korea before becoming disabled after a tent fell off of a military truck and landed on her neck, said she has found it difficult to find support services. A central place for services would make it easier for her and fellow veterans as they transition back to civilian life.

“They tell you to go here, don’t go there, but there’s not a unified, ‘This is what you need to do,’” lamented Bushyeager. “There’s no hold your hand kind of thing. It’s kind of like, you’re out there, and there you go.”

Bennet’s pre-Veterans Day remarks came on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement of two tax credits aimed at encouraging employers to hire returning vets. The Returning Heroes Tax Credit would provide businesses that hire unemployed veterans a maximum credit of $5,600 per veteran. The Wounded Warriors Tax Credit would offer a maximum credit of up to $9,600 for each veteran hired with service-connected disabilities.

The two proposals are part of the president’s $447 billion American Jobs Act currently facing Congress. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure, 95-0, on Thursday, the day before Veterans Day. The House is expected to likewise pass the bill with resounding bipartisan support as soon as next week, which would then send it to the President for signing.

But U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-CD 6, speculates that while the tax credits may help place veterans in existing jobs, he doesn’t anticipate new jobs being created.

“The president’s economic policies are just not working,” said Coffman this week. “This may make for a good soundbite, and it may help some veterans get jobs by creating a preference for giving existing jobs to veterans, but I just don’t see it moving the economy forward to where we’re creating enough jobs to move down the unemployment rate.”

Coffman points out that soldiers returning home will still be listed as active duty and will be under the control of the Department of Defense, not the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bennet’s legislation would have no immediate impact on those soldiers, Coffman said.

“As a combat veteran, obviously I want veterans to have members of Congress who care about them, but I’m not sure about the effectiveness,” said Coffman.

In Colorado, state lawmakers are also seeking to help veterans. State Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, held a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 5, announcing proposed legislation to create a “Veterans Lottery.” The proceeds from the sale of these lottery tickets would benefit the Veterans Assistance Grant Fund, which would fund career counseling, mental health and suicide prevention, and provide temporary housing assistance.

“Because of the current budget situation, the state doesn’t have the funds available to further help our veterans,” Looper said in a statement, referring to the state’s estimated $1 billion structural gap. “That’s why I am sponsoring legislation to create the Veterans Lottery.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com