First elected as representative of Florida’s 1st Congressional District in 2001, Jeff Miller became chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2011. The committee oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veterans’ hospitals, it reviews programs, examines current laws, reports bills and amendments to strengthen existing laws concerning veterans, reviews legislation, and it recommends new bills concerning veterans. Within the committee’s jurisdiction are retirement and disability pensions, life insurance, education, the GI Bill, home loan guarantees, medical care and a nationwide system of veterans’ cemeteries. A 53-year-old Republican, Congressman Miller recently spoke with Vietnam editors from his Capitol Hill office.
As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, what lessons do you draw from the Vietnam vet experience?
It’s pretty clear that our country in the Vietnam War era overlooked our war fighters and what they stood for, and let politics form our opinions of the entire military. A huge divide was created between the military and the public, unlike anything we had ever seen before or after. It has taken years to recover, and in fact we are still recovering. Only recently, I think, have we fully acknowledged the service and sacrifice of the Vietnam War veterans. I often see military personnel traveling in uniform going to or from Afghanistan, and without question the respect that is shown them is far greater than our Vietnam veterans experienced. I think we as a country broke our pledge —we failed our Vietnam veterans.
The VA has been led by a Vietnam vet for the last three years. How is he doing at this job?
Secretary Eric Shinseki is a leader whom everyone respects. He is passionate about all veterans and ensuring they have the care they need. But the problem he has is typical in Washington: bureaucracy. The bureaucracy within Veterans Affairs is extremely hard to shake up. But little by little I think we are starting to see a shift of emphasis away from process back to the veteran. The VA needs to remain committed to providing quality and timely care to Vietnam veterans, and the Vietnam vets need to trust that the VA recognizes their service. Look, it’s a relationship that has been through many ups and downs over the years and there is still a lot of work to do, but I think we are moving in the right direction. The VA understands its drawbacks and my committee is constantly reviewing VA programs. I do think they are doing a better job of reaching out to Vietnam veterans.
Should vets be worried about benefit cuts from efforts to decrease federal debt?
As both sides of the aisle understand, taking care of our vets should not be a political issue. There will be no cuts to the VA as a result of sequestration. I’ve tried to maintain the history of bipartisanship of the House committee, and I think Sen. Patty Murray is doing the same on the Senate side. We’ve seen greater increases in investments in the VA budget over a number of years. The fact is that cuts are off the table in this most austere time. That’s a victory for the veteran population.
Will out-of-pocket costs for those in the TRICARE system be increasing?
There is not a large appetite on Capitol Hill for increasing TRICARE costs to the user. The Obama administration unfortunately has placed an increase in co-pays and fees in its budget, but I would say we’ve got too many economic hardships in the country right now.
Too many veterans are among America’s homeless. What is being done for them?
Secretary Shinseki has made decreasing the number of homeless veterans one of his top priorities, and we all agree about getting them off the streets and back into society in a meaningful way. It’s been a priority for the better part of the last decade, and while we have made great strides, we still have too many vets sleeping on the streets. But the numbers are going down. We are trying to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015, and I will work with the secretary to help meet that goal in any way possible.
What did we learn from Vietnam about caring for veterans’ special needs such as PTSD and other psychological problems?
We owe much to Vietnam vets for bringing PTSD out from under a blanket of silence. We now know that PTSD can strike at any time—it could be immediately after returning from war or decades later. I think it is because of the Vietnam veteran experience that we now have military leaders coming out to talk about how PTSD has affected their lives in order to set the example of how it could be better dealt with.
Are we adequately applying those lessons?
Well, we know a lot more about PTSD than we did 15 years ago, and I don’t think that we would have advanced as far as we have medically or in breaking down the stigma without the Vietnam veterans. My fear for the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the VA is not prepared for the numbers of them who are going to have PTSD.
Agent Orange remains controversial. What is the outlook for those suffering the effects now or in the future?
The science speaks for itself. We know that dioxin has had a negative impact on the lives of thousands of Vietnam vets. We now have the protocols in place in the VA to treat veterans who were affected by Agent Orange and for veterans who may come forward in the future. The issue has also raised the awareness of environmental hazards and pollutants that our men and women come in contact with around the world. We are starting to look at other possible pollutants and what type of long-term effects they may have on veterans. The biggest takeaway for me as chairman is that we don’t know what the effects of a lot of these pollutants are going to be. And we even have the situation here in our own country, such as the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. You know, when we ask people to go out and put on the uniform of our country and they do so, we have to be prepared to take care of them in the future if they are exposed to something that is harmful to their health. I think having a better understanding of exposure risks ahead of time is very important. Agent Orange was used in great quantities with millions of gallons sprayed as a defoliant. I think had the United States been more mindful of the potential human health effects of Agent Orange, how and where it was used might have been handled differently.
What should be the position of the U.S. government with regard to treating Vietnamese who are suffering from Agent Orange exposure?
My first priority is to our troops who were exposed and making sure they are getting the best care possible. As with any major conflict, we will see an impact on local populations. We’ve seen that in every war this country has been involved in. We are cognizant of civilian life and that’s what makes us different from many other countries around the world. We have provided the Vietnamese with reparations, and helping those exposed to Agent Orange represents another opportunity for us to better understand the long-term effects of dioxin on all who have been exposed to it.
What is the most important lesson about committing U.S. forces to combat that you have taken from the Vietnam War?
You know, I think we need to be aware of the difference of the politics of war and the support for the war fighters. What happened to our Vietnam veterans when they came home was nothing less than shameful. It was not representative of who we are as a nation. Each of us owes respect to the men and women who go to fight on our behalf. I think that’s the lesson that we see playing out today. The people across the country are doing what they can to support our troops in any number of ways. Our soldiers came home from Vietnam and got attacked and treated poorly, and I would say it was a disgraceful period in our history. But I do think we’ve turned that corner, and I hope our Vietnam veterans today see that we as a nation have reaffirmed our pledge and promise to provide them, and our veterans of today’s wars, the benefits that they have honorably earned.
Do you believe that the all-volunteer army, by relegating the actual war fighting and dying to a very small group, is healthy or harmful to our country?
I say that the volunteer army is working very well for the current conflicts and the wars we have been involved in during the last decade—and that’s the view of our military commanders as well. Those best suited to a military life choose to adopt it and all that comes with it. And those who prefer business or another given profession do the same. I can’t say whether the all-volunteer army is healthy or harmful; what’s most important is how we choose to use the military we have. That being said, we should all be grateful we have men and women willing to volunteer to defend this country and that’s got to be the bottom line.
As we begin to mark the war’s 50th anniversary, what is the best way Americans can honor Vietnam veterans?
I think it is important as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War that we step forward as a nation and show the same respect and gratitude to our Vietnam veterans that is being shown today to our Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. We should honor veterans of all eras, whether they served in peacetime or war. I agree with the Vietnam Veterans of America: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” So let’s give Vietnam veterans the welcome home that they never received and the welcome home that they deserved decades ago.