While I love the idea of blogging, some days it feels like I have a school assignment to complete. I usually have some idea of what I want to say but I want to do it well and there is a time limit imposed. In class it is the teacher’s deadline. On a blog it can be the currency of the idea or freshness of the news. At any rate I will try to make notes or expand on some of the raw ideas that IAVA twittered (tweeted?) during Storm the Hill 2009. One of the most engaging meetings for me was lunch on Thursday with the nominee for VA Secretary of Inter-governmental and Public Affairs (I hope all that’s right)– Tammy Duckworth.
In the interest of full disclosure, Secretary Duckworth (soon anyway), has had a good relationship with IAVA for some time. She was recognized for her outreach and efforts with the Illinois VA system at our fall gala in 2007 and has served as an honorary member of our board. She has a compelling story and is one of the most genuine and erudite public speakers you’ll run across. One could almost forget that she was a Blackhawk driver and has no respect for parking places (joke – I guess blogging emoticons would look silly). Continuing the school metaphor, she took a few minutes to sit and share some of her areas of focus and plans once confirmed to her new position. She whipped out enough good ideas and information to give anyone a good, quick education on outreach to Vets, and let us know a little about the confirmation process. Pending confirmation she is not allowed to interact with or visit her new office or staff and so is in a kind of limbo in DC. The government had her move here without any kind of assistance either, leaving her to stay with friends. I think these processes are mostly designed for Washington insiders, independently wealthy and with a residence in the area. It’s a wonder anybody can get anything done their first few weeks in one of these jobs.
But she was still able to muster and feed us some great ideas and things to think about. She said that she planned to reach out or continue the effort to engage with and communicate with Veteran’s groups and service officers. But further, she also mentioned looking out to groups not traditionally affiliated with the military and Veterans like medical groups that could weigh in or benefit from assisting Vets. She talked about finding new ways to reach out to the new generation of Veterans, instinctively understanding that today’s Vets don’t always respond to the same outreach that a WW II Vet or a Viet Nam Vet might. She mentioned simple but smack-your-own-head obvious ideas like calling hotlines “Warrior Assistance Program” instead of “Suicide by Crazy Vet Who Should Never be Employed Under Any Circumstances” line (some exaggeration added in the last title). And she was concerned about the VA’s marketing budget, though the bottom line was that she just really didn’t know if she had a budget or not since she couldn’t go to the office until confirmed. I wonder if the panel of senators she meets will ask her how to spend that before she knows about it? I have a feeling that that budget is pretty atrophied since the last administration’s business model was to calculate how many Vets would NOT access the VA and so, save money.
Besides the obvious reasons for this outreach, like the rising suicide rate for troops and Vets, there are more subtle ones too. Many Vets are reticent to contact the VA, even for benefits they know they earned, because they don’t understand how it might affect their job or believe that the VA is still 1970s era rough-around-the-edges. In other places like South Texas, many Vets have not signed up for services or benefits, limiting the VA’s ability to program funds and construction correctly. Many of these Vets tried to use or access their benefits years ago and have given up. Special messages will have to be crafted to convince these Vets to reenter the system.
IAVA and many, many other Veterans’ groups have worked hard and helped to push better budgets to the VA. Over the last week , and with the introduction of the dual House and Senate bills for Advanced Appropriations, we took some big steps to getting a timely and predictable budget to them, hopefully offering great leaders like Tammy Duckworth the ability to plan and execute the types of communications and services needed to care for generations of Veterans. Learning about this, I was happy to eat Thursday’s lunch in class.