Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents

Annex - Meetings held in Washington DC, 10-12 June 2013

Below are details of those meetings relevant to the inquiry into Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland that members of the Committee[155] held during their visit to Washington DC.[156]

Rob McDonald, Criminal Justice Consultant, presentation on Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) were established in 2008, and followed the model of the United States' Drug Courts, first introduced in 1994, whereby non-violent offenders received treatment, rather than a custodial sentence, to overcome their behaviour. Ever more veterans had been appearing before the courts and, if they did not receive treatment, would keep reoffending. Since 2008 some 300 veterans had been dealt with by the Courts and, significantly, none of them had reoffended. There were now 104 such Courts throughout the US.

VTCs had been set up to deal with the number of veterans, both regular and reserve, who had become involved in crime and/or had mental health problems. There were certain requirements for an offender to meet if they wished to appear before a VTC; if these criteria could not be met, the veteran would be dealt with by a traditional court, and could end up in prison, or they would be sent for treatment for their mental health issues. Court staff would go through the records to see if anyone facing charges was a veteran and, if so, if they then met the criteria to go before a VTC. Although certain categories of violent offender were excluded from the VTC system, some of the courts would deal with people guilty of domestic abuse. Veterans did not have to approach a VTC themselves; a court official would make the first contact.

The rationale behind the Courts was to get, and treat, an offender who had committed a misdemeanour before they could progress onto committing a felony. VTCs tried to change an offender's behaviour; such changes were not instantaneous but they did transform lives. When asked whether VTCs could be translated successfully to the UK, due to the different legal systems in the UK and in the US, it was pointed out that all individual US States had their own legal systems, yet all of them now had VTCs.

VTCs helped members of the local community to become involved with veterans, as there could be a perception that veterans were treated more leniently than non-veterans. Veterans were not, of course, the only group of people who were dealt with outside the usual criminal justice system, and VTCs should be viewed in the same way as Drug Courts, Young Offenders Courts and Family Courts. However, there was generally a positive view of VTCs as they were effective in reducing reoffending.

Senator Bernard Sanders, Chairman, and staff of the Veterans Affairs Committee, US Senate

The Veterans' Affairs Committee was created in 1970 and under the Standing Rules of the Senate, the Veterans Affairs Committee shall be referred all proposed legislation, messages, petitions, memorials, and other matters relating veterans.

Concerning the disparity of service provision between the federal and state Governments, we were told that:

·  Veterans affairs is a national programme provided by the federal Government (covering healthcare, disablement benefit, etc.);

·  Veterans affairs has a budget of $150 billion (second largest US budget), and

·  States provide some additional benefits, but these are relatively minor.

Historically, keeping track of veterans had not been good, but had improved in recent years. Service leavers were briefed on benefits and joining the Veterans Administration (VA), received advice on employment opportunities and also free healthcare. There were still issues around leaving the Department of Defence not automatically linking up with joining the VA, and also issues around sharing medical records between these two Departments.

The US spent more on military per capita (4%) than any other nation. Some thought that this was too high, but there was generally a consensus that support for veterans was important. Compensation payments were by far the biggest part of the veterans budget, accounting for about 60% of the $150 billion.

If service personnel were wounded in action, they would get healthcare through the VA and, if not wounded in action, there was an income assessment for the VA to provide healthcare. The VA also played a role in medical research, having led on work into PTSD, and developed treatment options; there had been large amounts of spending on PTSD and traumatic brain injuries in light of soldiers wounded in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

More was also being done to support the families of service people, with programmes being developed for children and spouses, and programmes to focus on reintegration following service, and informing families of the effects of service.

On education matters, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provided free state tuition, course books, and a stipend. This was a very lucrative benefit. The VA also provided training and education for older veterans to improve employment prospects.

The VA also provided guarantees for home loans, allowing veterans to purchase a home without a deposit.

Colonel Fred Hargreaves, British Embassy and Phil Burdette, Principal Director, Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy, US Department of Defence

A joint UK/US Service Personnel, Veterans and Families Taskforce had been set up in May 2011, which had brought many tangible benefits for the armed forces, particularly in respect of medical issues. The United States leadership was very interested in how the Covenant was being implemented in the UK, and would be particularly interested in hearing about the situation in Northern Ireland. Five Taskforce working groups had been set up[157] headed, on the UK side, by 3-Star Generals. The First Lady and the Second Lady were fully involved in the "Families" aspect of the Taskforce.

Until 2007, and the Walter Reed revelations, the mental health problems experienced by veterans had not been appreciated, but since then there had been a substantial initiative; nowadays some 6000 people were responsible for looking after 12000 wounded warriors. There were, however, still some enormous challenges, especially for those personnel who had received severe inquiries.

It was noticeable that the new generation of veterans were not joining the same organisations as their fathers and grandfathers did when they left the forces so, as soon as anyone left the armed forces, their details were passed onto the VA, who were proud of how they kept in touch with veterans by utilising modern technology, such as Smartphones.

In contrast to Northern Ireland, where S. 75 could be seen as a possible barrier to the full implementation of the Covenant, there was no equivalent Federal/State conflict in the US; the Federal system was so strong that it tended to overwhelm any conflict with State legislation - although the latter could provide an additional safety net.

One particular area that was being tackled currently was the situation whereby certain veterans, who had served as pilots, medical staff or truck drivers, were unable to carry on this occupation in civilian life as the military standard of training did not meet the criteria needed to obtain a State License. Tax breaks were available for companies taking on veterans, and the private sector actively sought veterans to employ in their businesses.

In the UK, the Community Partnership had been successful, but there was a different attitude in the US towards veterans, and the support US veterans received was mind-boggling. Charities played a much bigger role in supporting UK veterans as in the US the Government took on a much greater role, although it was acknowledged that the UK had the NHS, so veterans in the UK did not have as many concerns about the provision of health and medical services as did their American counterparts.

Karen Malebranche, Executive Director, Office of Interagency Health Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Rob Reynolds, Director, Benefits Assistance Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, and Anita Healy, Director, Memorial Programs, National Cemetery Administration, US Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) is a Federal Agency which provided an extensive range of services to veterans, such as payment of disability compensation to the veteran, education benefits to the veterans' dependents, survivor pensions, health care to disabled veterans, insurance and home loan assistance, and burial/cemetery services. The  VA was very proactive in outreach programs, especially designed to promote and protect the health of veterans, and to ensure that veterans were aware of their entitlements. Their mission statement is:

To fulfill President Lincoln's promise "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan" by serving and honoring the men and women who are America's veterans.

Three administrations that form the Department of Veterans Affairs:

·  the Veterans Benefits Administration;

·  the Veterans Health Administration, and

·  the National Cemetery Administration

Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)

The VBA provided a number of benefits including:

·  Disability compensation. $60 billion of the VA's budget is for 7.5 million veterans receiving disability compensation. This was for disabilities either incurred in or aggravated by military service.

·  Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, assisting Veterans with service-connected disabilities to prepare for, obtain, and maintain suitable employment.

·  Home Loan Guaranty. This programme helped Veterans, Service members and eligible Reservists obtain, retain, adapt or refinance a home.

·  Education. The VA's program could provide assistance for tuition, books, fees, housing and other costs under a number of different entitlements.

The VA also produced a book, updated annually, outlining all federal VA benefits.

Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

There were 22 million veterans in the United States, and 8 million were enrolled with VA healthcare. Most veterans had other options to accessing healthcare through the VHA, through employment or private health insurance.

The VHA's budget for 2013 was $55.4 billion, and had a staff of 277,000, of which 84,000 were veterans. The budget is divided into appropriations (federal money) and collections (from insurance providers). Healthcare under the VA was arranged into 21 geographical areas (Veterans Integrated Service Networks), and included:

·  152 medical centres (for in-patient care)

·  990 out-patient clinics

·  300 Vet Centres (for counselling services)

·  70 mobile Vet Centres

·  102 Domiciliary Residential Programs

·  134 Community Living Centres

The VHA's new healthcare delivery model emphasised patient-led options, with comprehensive ends-based plans being developed. The VA also had links with specialist centres for specific needs the VA can't handle.

National Cemetery Administration (NCA)

The first national cemeteries were established in 1862; prior to that, soldiers had si,ply been buried where they fell on the battlefield. The NCA's mission was to honour veterans and their families with final resting places in national shrines and lasting tributes that commemorated their service and sacrifice to their nation. There were now 131 national cemeteries covering 20,000 acres, where 3.8 million Veterans, service members, Reservists and family members had been laid to rest.

The NCA was responsible for providing burial space for Veterans and eligible family members, and for maintaining national cemeteries. The Administration also furnished headstones, markers and medallions for the graves of Veterans around the world, and administered a number of grants and certificate programs. The NCA had a staff of 1,700, over 74% of whom were veterans (the highest proportion in any federal agency).

Veterans and eligible family members were entitled to a number of burial benefits, which included:

·  Gravesite

·  Opening and closing of the grave

·  Perpetual care of the gravesite

·  Headstone, marker or medallion

·  US flag

·  Presidential Memorial Certificate

155   Members taking part were Laurence Robertson (Chair) Mr David Anderson, Mr Joe Benton, Oliver Colvile, Mr Stephen Hepburn, Jack Lopresti, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Nigel Mills, Ian Paisley and Andrew Percy. Back

156   During the visit, the Committee also held meetings with British Embassy, US Department of State, US Department of Energy, Northern Ireland Bureau, Embassy of Ireland, United Airlines and White House officials and individual Members of the US Congress. Back

157   Transition to Civilian Life, Mental Health, Rehabilitation, Families Support and Deployed Medical Support. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 17 July 2013