You Think Those ‘Support Our Troops’ Car stickers will Cover the Costs?
Supporting the Troops
The yearly cost of unemployment benefits for disabled military personnel has ballooned to #43billion. Is the U.S. Prepared for the oncoming wave of Iraq War Vets?
Newsweek Blog by Martha Brant
June 17, 2006
Ron Dickey wanted to make the Army his career. When he joined the service at 19 he traded Rienzi, Mississippi – a town of fewer than 500 residents – for a world of opportunities. Ambitious, Dickey became a member of the elite special forces and fought in the first Persian Gulf War. But when he got back from the Middle East, he developed extensive skin abrasions. He still doesn’t know if he was exposed to something during the war, but his health began to deteriorate quickly. In addition to the mysterious skin disease, he came down with diabetes and he already had some hearing loss. In 1993, he opted not to re-enlist.
Dickey first tried his hand at police work back home in Mississippi. But his health wasn’t up to it. So he went on the job market only to find that with a resume strong on weaponry but weak on Microsoft Word, he was bouncing from one low-paying job to another. “There were a thousand options to collect a (benefits) check,” says Dickey, now 35. “But I wanted to be a functioning member of society. I had to come up with a new way to be productive.
Many former soldiers are finding it difficult to return to 9-to-5 America. The number of disabled vets from all wars deemed “unemployable” by the US Department of Veterans Affairs tripled from 71,000 to 220,000 between 1996 and 2005. Unemployable vets receive about $2,393 a month, with the total cost of the program now #3.1billion a year (up from $857 million in 1996). That staggering price tag doesn’t include the bulk of recent vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who will enter the system over the next few decades.
Many of those now receiving benefits aren’t able to work because of their disabilities, and a majority are over age 60. But some vets, like Ron Dickey, could and would work under the right circumstances. And, while it is easier than ever for disabled vets to go online and get information about receiving unemployment benefits, the options for those who want to get a job are more complicated.
In a much-anticipated report issued last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the VA’s unemployable benefits for having unclear guidelines and weak follow-up. They found the big jump in those receiving benefits particularly troubling at a time when “advances in medicine and technology, along with labor market changes, have provided greater opportunity for people with disabilities to seek and maintain employment.” Even the VA concurred with the criticism. “The VA should look at the program as an opportunity to return to work if they can,” says Cristina Chaplain, a GAO director and author of the May 30 report – the first major review of veterans’ disability benefits in 50 years. “The demands of a new generation of veterans are going to be incredible, and the VA needs to get a good system in place.”
It’s difficult to gauge how much of an impact the new generation of war vets will have on the VA’s already strained system. More than 150,000 military personnel are now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the total number of troops who’ve rotated through either country at some point since September 2001 will definitely be much higher. About 18,000 military personnel have already been wounded in both conflicts. And many injuries like post traumatic stress disorder may not surface until well after their homecomings.
No one wants to deprive injured vets of hard earned benefits, but budgets are tight and the already overwhelming costs of “unemployable” benefits will only rise. The government, and increasingly the private sector, are starting to look for new ways to get vets jobs. “The system is broken,” says Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which advocates more and better job training and reintegration before returning vets wind up unemployed. “The VA needs to evolve to the new needs of the new war. They should be worried. A wave is coming.
Ken Smith of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation has come up with an innovative way to get ahead of the wave. He is willing to bet that at least 10 percent of those currently “unemployable” vets could work if given a chance. So last year, the foundation started a training program for disabled vets that would teach them how to be customer-service agents, emergency operators and telemarketers – anything they can do by phone, preferably from home. The popular military web site Military.com ran one paragraph about the training program and the foundation’s phones wouldn’t stop ringing. “Our position was overrun,” says Smith, speaking like the Vietnam combat vet he is. He too was injured in that war but went to a fruitful career in high tech.
Already, the training is changing people’s lives. One man chosen to be among the first 20 trainees had been severely burned on his face. “He can walk, he can talk, he just scares the bejeezus out of everyone,” SAYS Smith, who is running the new Veterans’ Business Training Center. After several uncomfortable job experiences with co-workers, he decided he needed to work at home. He went through the foundation’s training and now works for the IT help desk of an Arizona company. He’s never even met his employer face to face.
The foundation is currently selecting another 100 disabled vets for remote training with the goal of training 600 this year. But Smith has set his sights even higher. “I’m going after government contracts,” he says. Legally, veterans get preference in federal hiring. But quotas for disabled vets are rarely filled. “Even if you look at all the laws and preferences, less than 1 percent are being hired (for government contracts).” Explains Greg Bresser, executive director of the foundation. That’s partly because many vets don’t want to risk losing their benefits by trying out a job. So the foundation is trying to convince Congress not to touch veterans’ disability rating and benefits (100 percent disabled vets make about $28,000 a year tax-free) for one year while he or she tries out working. “Otherwise you penalize the veteran for even trying.” Smith says.
Meanwhile, the foundation hopes to play on private employers’ patriotism. “Wouldn’t you rather give your credit-card number to an America vet?” Bresser asks. He realizes that American salaries make vets noncompetitive with overseas workers. So he and the foundation have been pushing for tax credits for companies to make up the difference in salary.
For Ron Dickey, getting a job was about a lot more than the paycheck. He happened upon the Purple Heart training program online and was in the first wave of trainees. During his 15 weeks of remote training, Dickey not only learned how to type 30 words a minute but also how to use call-center computer software. This week, he starts a new job making $18.50 an hour at a large mortgage company in Virginia. He’ll soon have health benefits, too. “If you go into the military you have to have some kind of drive.” Dickey says. “You want to be part of the world.” Helping American vets find gainful employment can be a big step toward keeping the desire alive.
My name is Ron Dickey, I would like to represent Northern Mississippi in Washington DC as your Congressman for the 1st District. President Obama has asked America to please send him a Congress who will work with him, I am stepping forward to be that person. Please vote for Ron Dickey this June 3rd, for our Dem Primary and in the General Election Tuesday, November 4, 2014.
I am a resident of Horn Lake, where I live with my wonderful wife Wanda. My roots are in Alcorn County where I grew up, attended school, and worked. I have worked many jobs: the Army’s Special Forces Green Berets, Law Enforcement Officer (& was a Fraternal Order of Police Union Member), an owner operator Truck Driver (I’ve trucked into 48 states), and currently I’m a Peer Support Specialist at the Memphis Crisis Center. I am a college graduate of Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, AZ with a B.S., in Emergency Management and an AA from North East Mississippi Community College. I have attended Rust College, Ole Miss, Itawamba Community College and The N.E. MS Law Enforcement Academy. ( More specifics are listed on my resume, below the map MS’s 1st Congressional District.)
I am a proud Veteran. I was a Green Beret who served in the Gulf War during Operation Desert Storm and was stationed in Korea and Fort Brag. I was presented with the National Defense Medal