Note: AS enacted, S. 3036 is Public Law 95-447, approved October 10.
To the Congress of the United States:
I am submitting this Message to report on the progress of Veterans of the Vietnam-era, and to describe the actions I will take to respond to the special problems a number of these Veterans still face.
Veterans of World War I, World War II and Korea have received the recognition and gratitude they deserve. They are honored and remembered as men and women who served their country. This has not always been the case for those who served during the War in Vietnam. In many ways, their service was more painful than in other eras: the selection process was often arbitrary; the war was long and brutal; the changes in warfare and innovations in medicine meant that fewer soldiers were killed than in other wars, but a far greater percentage survived with disabling injuries.
Because the war did not have the full backing of the American public, neither did those who fought in Vietnam. Many civilians came to confuse their view of the war with their view of those who were called upon to fight it. They confused the war with the warrior. Yet I know that all Americans join me in stating that the courage and patriotism of those who served in Vietnam have earned them full measure of honor and respect.
It is a tribute to the caliber of those who served that most Vietnam-era Veterans have already adjusted very successfully to civilian life. Still, in many ways, the effects of the war in Vietnam linger on. We have only begun to understand the full impact of the conflict. As part of healing its wounds, we have recognized our obligation to forget many harsh words and rash acts, and to forgive those who resisted the war. Of even greater importance is our determination to recognize those who did serve and to show our appreciation for the sacrifices they made.
I have directed the Secretary of Defense to honor the memory of all those who fought and died as well as those who are missing in action in Southeast Asia in ceremonies this fall at Arlington Cemetery.
As for those who did return, our review has found their personal and family median incomes are substantially higher than similar-aged non-Veterans, and their unemployment rates have been lowered. For the third quarter of 1978, Vietnam era Veterans aged 20-34 had a 4.7% unemployment rate as compared to a 6.7% rate for the third quarter of 1977. Although rates vary from month to month, it is fair to say that most Vietnam era Veterans have moved into the mainstream of economic life. Vietnam-era Veterans are making comparable or better use of their Veteran benefits than Veterans of previous wars. To date, nearly 65% have utilized their GI Bill benefits, which is far greater than under the World War II or Korean programs. We should not fail to recognize the hard work and determination that typify most Vietnam era Veterans who have been successful in their military to civilian transition.
But for many Veterans—especially minority and disadvantaged Veterans-the transition to civilian life has led to unemployment, poverty and frustrations. The key to making our Veterans' programs successful—and efficient—is to target them carefully on those who continue to need help. By using our resources more skillfully and coordinating our efforts more closely, we can aid those ex-servicemen and women who are most in need of government assistance.
In my written State of the Union message to you last January, I indicated that my Administration would undertake a government-wide review of the status of the Vietnam-era Veteran and the programs designed to serve them. Since that time, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Community Services Administration, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Domestic Policy Staff have reviewed the status of these ex-servicemen and women and have prepared recommendations for improved government performance. On the basis of that policy review, I have ordered improvements in four areas of Veterans affairs:
• EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES
• EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
• OTHER VETERANS SERVICES AND BENEFITS
• MILITARY STATUS
In order to implement my decisions in these areas and improve delivery of services to veterans, I have established an interagency Veterans Federal Coordinating Committee, composed of representatives of eight agencies, operating under the direction of the Executive Office of the President.
I am also conferring upon the Veterans Administration the status of a Cabinet Agency, for the purpose of attending Cabinet meetings. The Veterans Administration is a large and important part of our government. Its presence at Cabinet meetings will be useful for other departments with overlapping responsibilities, and for the Veterans Administration itself, which will have a stronger voice.
To better understand some of the issues that will continue to confront the Vietnam-era Veteran, I am instituting a survey of public attitudes toward those Veterans. This study will help us identify the real areas of concern, as well as accurately portray the public's overall support of Veterans' benefit programs generally.
I. EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Most Vietnam-era Veterans are now doing better economically than non-veterans of the same age and background. In 1977, Vietnam-era Veterans aged 2039 had median personal incomes of $12,680 compared to $9,820 for similaraged non-veterans. When compared by family income, the figures are $15,040 and $12,850 respectively. For Vietnam-era Veterans aged 20-34, the unemployment rate of 7.4% for September one year ago declined to 4.9% in September, 1978. As in all other sectors, unemployment rates for Veterans are substantially lower than they were when this Administration took office. We have hired nearly 98,000 Vietnam-era Veterans in public service jobs as part of the Administration's Economic Stimulus Package. Jobs and training assistance for Veterans became a top domestic priority when the Administration took office; the results are now clearly visible.
But if the overall employment picture for Vietnam-era Veterans is encouraging, the unemployment problems of minority, disabled, and disadvantaged Vietnam-era Veterans are cause for continued concern and attention. Black Vietnam-era Veterans, a significant percentage of whom saw active combat, face unemployment rates of 11.2% for the third quarter of 1978 compared to 15.9% for the third quarter of 1977. For the more seriously disabled Veterans, the unemployment rate is estimated to range as high as 50%. We have made great strides in every area of employment since the beginning of my Administration, but these jobless rates are still far too high. There is a clear need to better coordinate employment and employment assistance programs so that they are targeted on those Veterans most in need.
With that in mind, I have ordered a comprehensive review of the overall system for delivery of employment services to veterans. The review will yield further suggestions for improvement, but I have already initiated action to:
• improve the participation of Veterans in all Comprehensive Employment and Training Act ( CETA ) programs. We have designed a number of ways of making sure CETA prime sponsors take account of the special needs of Veterans. They include: inspecting grant plans and monitoring local prime sponsor systems to assure consideration of the Vietnam-era Veteran and seeking to have better Veterans representation on prime sponsor councils.
• continue operation of a national Help Through Industry Retraining and Employment (HIRE) program at a $40 million level, and supplement it with a $90 million HIRE II program, paid for with carry-over funds from the original HIRE effort. HIRE I is a national contract program operated through State Employment Services across the country, and through the National Alliance for Business. It hires and trains Veterans, members of Veterans' families eligible for Veterans' preference, and disadvantaged non-veteran youth for jobs in the private sector. HIRE II will decentralize sponsors to contract for and operate it in cooperation with State Employment Security agencies. HIRE II will be available exclusively for Veterans. Participants will also have access to all of the training, public employment and outreach services available through other CETA programs.
• Secure from Congress authority to spend in Fiscal 1979 HIRE funds appropriated in 1977. Without this extension the unobligated funds would have reverted to the Treasury.
• continued support will be given for the special outreach programs for Veterans operated by the National Alliance for Business and selected community organizations. One of the most important contributions government can make to Vietnam-era Veterans is to support outreach programs. They extend Veterans services to those who are unaware of the availability of assistance or intimidated by the idea of seeking it. We have extended our outreach efforts through HIRE II program and Veterans organizations. The National Alliance for Business and 13 other private programs funded by the Department of Labor must have continued backing.
• maintain current funding levels for the Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP). DVOP was originally funded as part of the economic stimulus package, but the program deserves to continue at its current level of $30 million. DVOP employs 2,000 disabled Veterans to help find jobs for other disabled Veterans. So far, 26,000 disabled Veterans have found work through the program and it continues to be targeted at those Veterans with the severest employment problems.
• improve coordination between Department of Labor and Veterans Administration employment programs. These programs will become more efficient as departmental policy links are clarified by a new high-level joint committee appointed by the Secretary of Labor and the Veterans Administrator. Money-wasting duplication of effort will be ended.
• order all Federal agencies to make greater use of the Veterans Readjustment Appointment (VRA) authority to bring Vietnam-era Veterans, especially the disabled, into government service. I have already submitted legislation to liberalize and extend the authority to June 30, 1980. The bill has passed both Houses of Congress and is now in conference.
II. EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
Vietnam-era Veterans are in the process of becoming the best educated group of Veterans in our history. Already, 65% of Vietnam-era Veterans have taken advantage of the GI Bill. That compares to a final rate of some 51% for World War II Veterans and 43% for Veterans of the Korean War. The Nation has spent nearly $25 billion on the GI Bill for Vietnam-era Veterans compared with $14 billion for those who served in World War II and $4.5 billion for Veterans of the Korean conflict.
But these readjustment assistance benefits often have not been utilized by those Vietnam-era Veterans who need them the most. Many members of minority groups and those lacking a high school diploma have not taken full advantage of the GI Bill. For them, outreach efforts must be intensified and eligibility expanded. At present, eligibility for most benefits under the GI Bill generally ends ten years after discharge. Although these provisions are more liberal than for Veterans of previous wars, we will:
—submit legislation to the Congress that would extend eligibility beyond ten years for these Veterans the Veterans Administration defines as in need or educationally disadvantaged.
—continue a VA program called "Operation Boost" designed to seek out Veterans who are unaware of the time limit that is fast approaching for many of them.
III. OTHER VETERANS SERVICES AND BENEFITS
In general, Veterans benefits have been generous for Vietnam-era Veterans, but these and other benefits to which they are entitled need to be targeted better on those who really need them. Among those benefits and services requiring improvement are ones relating to:
• Disabled Veterans
• Incarcerated Veterans
• Readjustment counselling and substance abuse treatment.
Individuals with service-connected disabilities are especially in need of greater assistance from the government. That is particularly true for Vietnam-era Veterans, who suffered a 300% greater loss of lower extremities than Veterans of any other war. Altogether, 512,000 have sustained some kind of disability.
Our vocational rehabilitation programs must reflect our paramount concern for those Veterans who have service-connected disabilities. The current VA program is based on a 1943 model and requires major updating. I will submit legislation to the next Congress that will modernize and improve that program.
READJUSTMENT COUNSELING AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE TREATMENT
The frequent image of the Vietnam Veteran as unbalanced, unstable and drug-dependent is simply not borne out by available information. Most Veterans have adjusted well and the incidence of drug abuse, although greatly increased while in service, has for the most part declined to pre-Vietnam levels or lower. Nevertheless, there is evidence that suggests a significant minority of Vietnam Veterans have experienced problems of readjustment which continue even today.
Vietnam-era Veterans under age 34 have a suicide rate 23% higher than non-Veterans of the same age group. The number of hospitalized Vietnam-era Veterans identified as alcoholics or problem drinkers more than doubled from 13% in 1970 to 31% in 1977. And, although the drug abuse problem has declined, Vietnam-era Veterans account for 39% of all inpatients and 55% of all outpatients being treated by the VA for drug dependence problems.
The government is addressing these concerns, but more must be done:
—The Administration has already proposed legislation which would authorize psychological readjustment counseling to Vietnam-era Veterans and their families. The proposal is aimed at those Veterans who are not classified as mentally ill but nevertheless need some kind of counseling. I urge Congress to enact this proposal prior to adjournment.
The Administration also requested legislative authority to contract for halfway houses in the treatment of Vietnam-era Veterans with substance abuse problems. This authority, together with the activation of 20 new VA substance abuse treatment units in this coming fiscal year, should provide needed resources to treat those with continuing alcohol and drug abuse problems.
—Finally, more research needs to be done into the problems of Vietnam-era Veterans. I am directing both the Veterans Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health to initiate studies in this area. A major study contracted for by the Veterans Administration to be submitted next year should enable us to better identify the nature and extent of problems being experienced by Vietnam-era Veterans.
Like Veterans of all wars, a certain percentage of Vietnam-era Veterans end up in prison after returning home. Available data suggest that there a-re about 29,000 Vietnam-era Veterans in State and Federal prisons. Many of these Veterans received discharges which entitle them to VA benefits. Unfortunately, we lack cornprehensive information about imprisoned Veterans.
I have directed the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to compile accurate data about incarcerated Veterans. I have also asked the LEAA and the Bureau of Prisons to develop an information dissemination program for criminal justice system officials aimed at informing Veterans of the benefits available to them.
IV. MILITARY STATUS
Ninety-seven percent of all Vietnam-era Veterans received discharges under honorable conditions after completing service. It is only fair that those few individuals with discharges under other than honorable conditions be presented with the fullest possible justification for the action taken against them. Because of the serious harm such a discharge can do to a Veteran seeking a responsible place in society, the government must assure that discharge review is readily available to insure fair and humane treatment.
In this connection the Administration will:
—grant assistance to Veterans seeking discharge review. The Department of Defense has agreed to provide indices of discharge review/correction board cases to selective regional offices of the VA.
—submit legislation to modify the provisions of PL 95-196 which automatically barred VA benefits for combat Veterans discharged because of unauthorized absences of 180 days or more.
No steps we take can undo all the damage done by the war. There is no legislation that can bring those who died back to life, nor restore arms, legs, eves to those who lost them in service. What we can do is to acknowledge our debt to those who sacrificed so much when their country asked service of them, and to repay that debt fully, gladly, and with a deep sense of respect.
The White House,
October 10, 1978.