May 25, 2008 – Sen. Ted Stevens warned of a “mass exodus” from the military Saturday if the so-called 21st Century GI Bill goes into law without major changes.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 passed the Senate on Thursday with wide bipartisan support, but with many differences from the version earlier passed by the House of Representatives.
While visiting Fairbanks with Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake, Stevens took issue with the bill giving benefits to veterans after only three years of military service.
“There are worries that people who are already in for two years will serve one more and leave, and there’s really no incentive to stay,” Stevens said while speaking at the Disabled American Veterans’ 19th Annual Department Convention at the Fairbanks Regency.
Stevens, who served in the military in the ’40s, said that in the final form of the bill, he would like to see an option for veterans to transfer money for college to spouses or their children.
“Transferability is probably the most important thing in my opinion,” he said. “As a father of six, I would have liked to have had some of that around.”
Because of the differences in the bill between the House and Senate versions, it is expected to be several weeks before a final version reaches President Bush’s desk.
Stevens and Peake fielded questions about several veterans’ issues at Saturday’s convention. Alaska veterans face unique issues in getting medical care because they make up a higher portion of the population than other states, and many live in areas where it is difficult to receive health care.
Peake touted plans to build new VA clinics in Wasilla and Palmer, as well as strides that have been made in telemedicine, which allows patients in rural Alaska to get live health advice from a professional over the Internet.
“I think telemedicine is an important tool because it enables people to keep in contact when they can’t make it to a hospital,” Peake said.
One concern of the veterans in attendance was the higher rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peake noted the number of veterans committing suicide is likely lower than has been reported in the media, and he said VA is doing more to make sure those who leave the military are aware of the services available to them and is also increasing the number of suicide prevention coordinators.
“We want to avert some of the things we learned in my generation, the Vietnam generation,” he said.
On the topic of PTSD, Peake questioned if the condition is being overdiagnosed, considering the mental health services available to those in the armed forces.
“I worry about labeling all these kids coming back,” he said. “Just because someone might need a little counseling when they get back, doesn’t mean they need the PTSD label their whole lives.”
Peake and Stevens are visiting Bethel and Quinhagak today and Anchorage on Monday.