Violante: The soldier's voice on Capitol Hill

Joe Violante often thinks of the friends he lost in Vietnam. Four decades after he enlisted in the Marines, he’ll find himself wondering why he made it and Maurice, Terry and Paul did not.

But Violante, who still has ringing in his ear from a blast during the war, has found a way to honor his fellow soldiers and deal with his own survivor’s guilt. He has fought on Capitol Hill for the past quarter-century as one of the biggest advocates for disabled veterans.

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Every day he wakes with the goal of ensuring they have the best healthcare and benefits available through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“I get home at the end of the day knowing that we are moving inch by inch closer on issues that are going to have a lasting impact on the lives of veterans and their families,” said Violante, the national legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

Violante’s job is becoming increasingly complex; he no longer advocates only for aging veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Korea and the first Gulf War, but now has a growing number of younger vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan whom he must think about.

That difficulty has only emboldened the 59-year-old Vietnam veteran, who enlisted in April of 1969 after seeing a neighbor’s body returned home from the war. His years of service, advocacy and coalition-building are about to culminate in a landmark legislative victory for all veterans.

Congress is on the cusp of approving advance appropriations for the VA, which would ensure that injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and other veterans, have predictable medical-care funding. This would give the VA much more certainty over its funding, as it would know its budget a year in advance.

Despite significant increases in the VA’s spending in recent years, Congress over the last two decades has routinely passed the agency’s funding late. This year is no different, but when the 2010 appropriations bill gets a final vote it will include funding levels for 2011, too. The House and Senate still have to cast a final vote on authorizing legislation for advance appropriations, but the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs panels have already agreed on compromise legislation.

For years, Violante’s group and other veterans-service organizations felt the odds stacked against them on even promoting the concept of predictable medical funding. But those who know Violante say he never gave up.

“Joe’s feeling is that we’ve got to continue to keep moving forward and keep improving the lives of our veterans,” Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) told The Hill. “Advance funding is extremely important, and it has been a priority of a lot of veterans-service organizations.

“By and large, the fact that you had individuals, such as Joe, who is very adamant and never made a difference about what political stripes you have,” led to success with advance appropriations, Michaud added. Michaud is the chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Health subcommittee.

Advocating for disabled veterans over the years has turned Violante into a trusted adviser for lawmakers on issues regarding the VA.

“I have Joe’s cell phone number on my BlackBerry, and I call it regularly,” said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), the top House appropriator with jurisdiction over the VA.

“Joe is a class act who has dedicated his heart and soul to our nation’s vets. He has been a key partner in enacting the historic increases in VA funding since I became chairman in 2007.”

Violante has never backed away from challenging those in authority. This year, his organization went as far as staging a full-blown campaign against the Obama administration over a proposal that would have dramatically altered the way the VA handles insurance claims for veterans.

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His organization was part of a broad coalition of veterans groups, including the American Legion, that made it clear to President Barack Obama — whom they supported during the campaign — that the honeymoon would end abruptly if the administration did not heed their concerns on the policy change. The coalition prevailed.

Despite his successes, Violante’s work is never done. He is eyeing a massive bill currently held up in the Senate that would improve the healthcare of female veterans, and is working with the House, Senate and White House on a bill that would create a permanent program to increase the support for family members who are the primary caregivers to veterans. Violante believes that victory on both issues will come by the end of the year.

That also means that Violante could tackle the arcane world of the VA’s claims process — which, he says, is in desperate need of overhaul. His organization has worked on a proposal to shorten the time in which the VA adjudicates benefit claims and to ensure that officials make the right decisions the first time.

Over the years he has learned to think positively, something he honed while working as a salesman paid strictly on commission and often consulted self-help books for advice. One particular phrase has guided him all these years: “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve with a positive mental attitude.”

He notes that he can’t do his work without the help of “excellent staff members” and consultants with years of experience on Capitol Hill and the VA. It also helps, he says, that the congressional leadership has been more “pro-veteran” and “more proactive” on veterans’ issues.

While he advocates for veterans shattered by war, at home Violante fights his own ghosts.

His journey began in December 1968, when he was gripped by the image of his neighbor’s body coming home. He could not stop thinking that he was in school while others were overseas fighting. Four months later, he enlisted in the Marines.

He returned home in 1972 with a ringing in his ears and bad knees from a blast that knocked him off a hill. He also came back knowing he made it while others, including three friends, did not.

One way he manages his grief is by writing screenplays, one of them dealing with the struggle in the aftermath of war and the power of positive thinking. It is cathartic and allows him to relax in the evening and on weekends. It’s not always serious. Two screenplays are comedies, one about insurance adjusters (his former profession) and one based on a co-worker who gets into funny situations.

His screenplays are more than a hobby. He’s looking for an agent to represent him and hopes one day to see them on the big screen.

Violante knows a thing or two about representation. He’s been a voice for others over the years.

“I feel like I am giving back something, and doing something that maybe one of them would have done,” Violante said.

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