One of the key aspects of the mission of Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is to represent the needs of service members who have incurred injuries, wounds, and illnesses. In early March 2019, a senior executive with the organization testified in front of the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs to outline some of its key goals for wounded warriors and draw attention to the major issues faced by this demographic. Rene Bardorf, the senior vice president of government and community relations, made several recommendations on how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could make a bigger impact on the lives of veterans and their families, as well as those who care for them.
WWP is the leading representative of the 20 million veterans living in the United States. The organization undertakes extensive research on the needs of this demographic qualitatively through its individual connections with members and then quantitatively through the WWP Annual Warrior Survey. Recently, more than 33,000 wounded warriors responded to the survey to express their views, account for their needs, and share their experiences with the VA and other organizations. This survey revealed some important trends, especially compared to recent years, that helped shape the WWP legislative priorities for 2019 and, in turn, its recent recommendations to the joint commission. Some of the key issues identified by WWP include the following:
1. Suicide Prevention
WWP focuses heavily on mental health, and its top clinical priority for 2019 is suicide prevention. The organization would like the VA to move away from crisis management and invest more in resilience training and prevention. WWP believes that Congress has a responsibility to revisit the joint Action Plan on the Executive Order on Mental Health Care for Transitioning Service Members to identify what is working and improve overall mental health services. Suicide remains especially prevalent among Vietnam-era veterans, so this particular demographic deserves more focused attention. Furthermore, WWP wants the VA to offer more supportive postvention programming for family members.
2. Caregiver Program
While the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers has had a significant impact, WWP believes that it is important for Congress to think about the growing burden, particularly as caregivers grow older. Without proper forethought, a public health crisis could result. To prevent this, VA officials need to create more robust caregiver and community support systems.
3. Adaptive Recreation Equipment
A proposed definition for adaptive recreation equipment could potentially place limitations on access for reasons not directly related to a medical goal. WWP recognizes the inherent value of items intended to facilitate social connection and recreational activity. A limited definition could prove detrimental to veterans bound to a wheelchair or those who have had their limbs amputated.
4. VA Mission Act
The VA Mission Act was created to ensure that all veterans have access to timely and high-quality care through VA providers. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority in both chambers of Congress and is now approaching the implementation phase. Successful implementation depends on deliberative and inclusive collaboration among VA officials, as well as private sector partners and veteran service organizations. WWP has outlined some of the potential barriers to implementation that Congress needs to anticipate, such as enrollment issues, timeliness of reimbursements, and repayment models in relation to mental health. The organization also urges Congress to consider innovations in care delivery and payments to ensure the best experience possible for veterans.
5. Traumatic Brain Injury and Toxic Exposure
WWP believes that the issue of traumatic brain injury (TBI) has not received the attention it deserves, particularly in terms of identifying the acute and long-term care needs of veterans with this condition. More than 41 percent of survey respondents said they dealt with the effects of TBI. Considering this high percentage, Congress needs to commission more studies on the effects of TBI and how care can be made most effective. Environmental and chemical hazard exposure have also emerged as major health risks for post-9/11 service members. WWP believes that there is a clear pattern of exposure and that the development of health issues such as cancer has not been adequately explored.
6. GI Bill Benefits
Historically, broad changes in the G.I. Bill have had unintended consequences for veteran students. WWP wants Congress to thoroughly review changes and anticipate these problems before they affect the lives of veterans. One issue is the 90/10 loophole, which includes G.I. Bill payments as non-federal funds and encourages less reputable schools to use aggressive marketing strategies to attract veteran students.
7. Specially Adapted Housing Grants
The VA Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grants offer assistance to veterans with service-related disabilities to make modifications to their home to accommodate their disabilities. WWP members have consistently benefited from these grants, but the benefits are limited by existing caps. Individuals can only apply for grants three times in their lifetime and the total value of all three grants cannot exceed $81,080. These caps could become problematic for veterans who marry and raise families, creating an increased need for adaptive homes. WWP asks that Congress consider reinstating SAH benefits every 10 years to account for changing needs.