Trump should focus on veterans during his address

Trump should focus on veterans during his address
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Tomorrow evening, President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE will give the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address. The much-anticipated speech is expected to cover topics such as the government shutdown, border security and a call to end America’s wars overseas.

Of course, any time there is a drawdown of an ongoing military conflict, there is in turn an increase in the number of veterans needing services, such as health care and employment transition assistance.

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Accordingly, Trump would be wise to use a portion of the SOTU address to substantively discuss veterans’ issues, too.

Veterans are no strangers to the SOTU. Unfortunately, however, much of the attention given to veterans during the annual event involves showmanship rather than substance.

Although Trump, likewise, is no stranger to showmanship, he’s also no stranger to doing things differently than his predecessors. As such, Trump should have no problem escalating conversations about veterans’ policy to the frontlines of the SOTU address.

The tradition of honoring veterans at the SOTU is a relatively recent one that derives from the concept of highlighting American heroism.  

Beginning in 1982, President Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik to with First Lady Nancy Reagan at the SOTU, after he dove into the icy waters of the Potomac to rescue a woman from a plane crash.  President Reagan hailed him “as epitomizing the heroic spirit [of] the United States,” for which he earned a standing ovation from the entire audience, one of the only bipartisan actions of the night.   

Since that time, presidents have invited special guests who likewise embody heroism to sit in

“the heroes gallery,” which often features service members, veterans and veterans advocates, as well as first-responders and other extraordinary citizens.

“It was one heck of an experience to represent so many that couldn’t be there,” recalls Tommy Rieman, an Iraq War veteran who sat in the heroes gallery and was recognized at the 2007 SOTU by President George W. Bush.

However, Rieman continued: “It’s important that we celebrate these heroes, but it can’t just be lip service. For veterans, it can’t just be about going to the VA – we need to also talk about community partners. Until we start taking that seriously, veterans are going to continue having problems. The SOTU needs to be a rallying call to get things done. Grandstanding is no longer enough.”

Rieman put his money where his mouth is, now serving as the director of Philanthropy for Veterans Bridge Home, a Charlotte-based non-profit that works with community partners to help veterans successfully transition from active duty to civilian life.

More importantly, however, Rieman raises a critical and topical point about focusing any conversation about veterans on community partners.

VA recently released its access standards for community care, which, pursuant to the MISSION Act, expand the circumstances under which a veteran would be eligible for non-VA health care. The standards largely mirror those available to military retirees under TRICARE Prime.

Moreover, despite the political rhetoric around whether the standards are a slippery slope toward privatizing the VA, the issuance of these standards is a personal success story for Trump, who campaigned on expanding veterans’ healthcare. And, it is one he sorely needs after the battering he took in regards to the government shutdown.  

To this end, look no further than to veterans such as Anuradha Bhagwhati.  Bhagwhati, the founder of the Service Women’s Action Network, fully admits that she “do[es]n’t like the president” but conceded that she is “thrilled about his efforts to bring private healthcare to veterans.”  

In a New York Times OpEd, Bhagwhati states that, “[o]n many occasions I have experienced inappropriate behavior by VA personnel because I am a woman,” something that exacerbates the trauma symptoms she experiences as a sexual assault survivor. Bhagwhati states that VA’s Choice program was “life-changing” for her and, as a result, she’s supportive of the Trump Administration’s new community care access standards, even though she remains ideologically opposed to Trump himself.

In addition, Trump continues to enjoy a higher approval rating among veterans than the general population.  According to a December 2018 poll by AP VoteCast, 56 percent of veterans said they approved of the job Trump was doing, whereas non-veterans were more likely to disapprove (58 percent).

The SOTU’s primary purpose is for the president to convey his priorities and legislative agenda to Congress and to the nation.  Although nearly all presidents have stated that veterans’ issues are a priority to their respective administration, few have backed up this statement with their actions.

President Trump can once again set himself apart from his predecessors by doing just that and highlighting that veterans’ have complex needs that require legislative and culture attention long after they perform the valiant actions that put them in the heroes gallery at the SOTU.    

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.