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By Jonathan D. Salant
Bloomberg News Service
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said Congress should consider an economic stimulus measure that would create jobs for those leaving the military.
"That would be helpful," the Kaua'i native said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Conversations with Judy Woodruff," airing this weekend. Legislation that would reduce unemployment among veterans would add to other initiatives the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking, he said.
Shinseki, 67, said he's part of an administration task force chaired by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that is seeking ways to hire more veterans for federal jobs. The department also used some of its $1 billion in stimulus funds from last year to encourage more veteran-owned small businesses to compete for federal agency contracts, Shinseki said.
The jobless rate among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars reached 14.7 percent in March, more than half again the national average of 9.7 percent. Reducing unemployment in the group also would help Shinseki achieve another priority: ending homelessness among veterans within five years.
"I'm convinced we can do much better than we're doing today" on homelessness, said Shinseki, a retired four-star general who was Army chief of staff during the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was wounded twice in Vietnam.
Jobs, education and treatment for mental health and substance abuse would make "major inroads," Shinseki said. As concern grows over the psychological effects of combat, the VA has increased its mental health staff to 19,000 and created a suicide hotline answered directly by professional counselors.
Veterans Affairs provides housing, education and disability benefits, health care and burial services for more than 8 million U.S. veterans and their families.
Shinseki said he is trying to change the culture of the department so that it advocates for those who served in the military.
"We have a relationship with them that they earned through their military service," Shinseki said. "Now it's our responsibility to uphold our end of that arrangement."
The department is trying to reduce a backlog of 150,000 to 180,000 claims that are more than 125 days old, due in part to a lack of automation, he said. Speculation that the backlog totals 1 million claims "would be at the very, very high end of an estimate," he said.
The department also is trying to help veterans sort through problems in gain access to a new GI Bill that went into effect in August to expand education benefits for those who served after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Automated systems are just arriving, so the department has been handling enrollment manually, with 215,000 veterans attending educational programs now, Shinseki said.
Female veterans also are a growing focus for the VA. Shinseki said they make up 6 percent of the agency's enrollment now and probably will be 10 to 15 percent of the 23 million American veterans projected in a decade.