San Diego Union Tribune

July 16, 2007

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON DANA WILKIE
More military muscle

The San Diego area already has some heft in Congress when it comes to military matters, what with one lawmaker – Democrat Bob Filner – leading the House Veterans Affairs Committee and another – Republican Duncan Hunter – the second-in-command on House Armed Services.

The region can flex a little more muscle now that Rep. Susan Davis, a San Diego Democrat, is the newly installed chairwoman of Armed Services' subcommittee on military personnel.


 

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Among Davis' opening acts since taking the chairwoman's post 16 days ago are: querying Pentagon officials on the mental health challenges facing servicemen and women; writing a bill to force colleges to reimburse reservists called back to active duty; and winning House passage of her plan to cap interest rates on student loans for military personnel.

One might think reimbursing a college student called to duty in Iraq or Afghanistan is a no-brainer, but apparently not. According to Davis' office, college-student reservists who have been called to fight overseas in some cases have had their grades dropped because they weren't in class – even though they notified administrators they were leaving, and why.

In one case, a university dismissed a student while he was serving in Iraq. While most colleges and universities refund tuition and fees for students called to duty, some don't.

 

NO COLLEGE SACRIFICE

Modeled after recommendations from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Davis' bill, introduced 10 days ago, would require colleges and universities to refund tuition and fees for credits that reservists failed to earn during the semester or quarter they were called to active duty.

“The men and women in our military already make so many sacrifices defending this nation,” Davis said. “Their college educations should not be yet another sacrifice.”

Davis' Veterans Education Tuition Support Act, or House Resolution 2910, also requires colleges to accommodate students when they return from duty by giving them the same academic standing they had when they left. It caps the interest rate for service members' student loans at 6 percent. And it gives recently returned service members a 13-month grace period before they begin paying on their loans – a little relief for those who may be returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorders or the like.

The 13-month grace period recently was included in the College Cost Reduction Act, or House Resolution 2669, which the House passed last week, 273-149.

“Civilian college students are given a grace period after graduating to transition to the work force and find employment,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, reservists must begin to repay student loans immediately at the end of their activation if they do not return to college right away.”

 

MOVING ON MENTAL HEALTH

Davis conducted her first hearing as subcommittee chairwoman last week when she assembled Pentagon experts to testify on the none-too-complimentary findings of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health. President Bush created the task force after the nation learned about shoddy patient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The 14-member task force concluded that stigma remains a barrier to troops who need mental heath care, that there aren't enough mental health professionals to care for troops exposed to multiple, stressful combat tours and that the military lacks the money and personnel it needs to fully support service members and families who suffer from post-traumatic or combat stress.

Among those testifying was S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Casscells promised that the Pentagon would deliver a detailed plan on the panel's 95 recommendations in the next three months, and that it is likely to include contracting or hiring civilians to provide care in military hospitals.

The chairwoman's perspective is that turning the panel's suggestions into reality will take a long time, that recruiting and training more mental health providers will be a challenge and that there is likely to be institutional resistance “from those who think the current system is adequate.”

“Improving and sustaining the mental health care system will be expensive,” she said. “But we simply cannot afford not to.”

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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