Domestic issues will be the focus of tonight’s presidential debate at the University of Denver, including the concerns of the nation’s estimated 20 million veterans.
Veterans face an increasing backlog in service claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, 6.6 percent unemployment and a suicide rate of 18 deaths per day. According to a report from the VA inspector general in April, only 49 percent of veterans seeking mental evaluations received treatment within the recommended 14 days. The average wait time was 50 days.
A Gallup poll in May showed veterans supporting Republican Mitt Romney over President Obama, 58 percent to 34 percent. This is the first time in 80 years that none of the candidates on the major-party tickets has a record of military service.
At home, the Obama administration points to several achievements for veterans and service members. On Aug. 31, the president signed an executive order to expand the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent. It also ordered the VA to expand the number of mental health professionals available to veterans “beyond traditional business hours.”
Obama announced a Veterans Job Corps in February intended to put veterans to work, but the bill creating it was blocked in the Senate last month. He was also behind the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which had prevented gay troops from serving openly.
Abroad, the Obama administration marked the end of the war in Iraq in December and promises to remove troops in Afghanistan by 2014.
On his campaign Web site, Romney promises to reform the VA by doing away with the dual health records created by active service and the VA.
This would create a “single medical record – from boot camp to retirement – to expedite and simplify a sluggish system,” the site says.
Romney has pledged to increase Navy shipbuilding and add 100,000 active-duty troops, along with bolstering missile defense systems.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, suggests a checklist of items veterans should keep when vetting their candidates.
Some of its important agenda items are: translating military skills into civilian certifications and licenses; “aggressive” public outreach to enroll more veterans in VA services; and improving the disability claims process.
Jim Lorraine, the executive director of the Augusta Warrior Project, said veterans should examine both candidates’ records for their plans to address unemployment and continue veteran programs.
“It’s going to take a leader that can make the executive branch work with the House and Senate,” Lorraine said.