Published in the Asbury Park Press, July 14, 2016
By Phil Murphy
New Jersey is home to more than 435,000 proud veterans, yet many live with wounds we cannot see.
Just this past spring, a South Jersey veteran set himself on fire outside a VA clinic. The veteran unemployment rate remains significantly above the national average — even more alarming is that veterans are 25 percent more likely than the average resident to have given up looking for work altogether. New Jersey is home to more than 53,000 disabled veterans, many of whom struggle with mental illness stemming from their service. Hundreds of veterans are homeless.
Despite these clear challenges, and recognizing that our veterans desperately need and deserve vital services, New Jersey has been slow to adapt. The problem isn’t a lack of caring, but the inertia of bureaucracy. The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) is responsible for overseeing both the National Guard and veterans services, a dual mission that divides its attention and prevents full focus from being given to the needs of the veteran community.
Marlboro councilman and U.S. Army Colonel Jeff Cantor, who is also the Democratic candidate for Sheriff, says that DMAVA is simply built for a different era. He’s entirely correct. It was created in 1988 — before the Gulf War, 9/11, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As U.S. Ambassador to Germany, I interacted regularly with the largest overseas formation of American forces. We’ve seen how the military must adapt to ever-changing threats. DMAVA must similarly reform to reflect present needs.
Col. Cantor and I have developed a new approach: divide DMAVA into two separate agencies — one with responsibility for the National Guard and another responsible for veterans. Veterans’ issues are fundamentally distinct from military affairs, and our bureaucratic structure should reflect that reality. Neighboring states, including Delaware and New York, have already taken this step and New Jersey should follow their lead.
The new Department of Veterans Affairs would then be restructured and empowered to address the challenges veterans face today. At a minimum, the new Department should consist of the following divisions:
- Employment and skills development: We must proactively match veterans with employers and develop job shadowing, internship, and apprenticeship opportunities. Many vets also are in need of professional development skills, including resume workshops that can help them best market themselves to potential employers. In addition, we must do more to ensure that technical licenses granted by the military — such as for electricians and mechanics — can translate directly into commercial licenses honored by the state.
- Mental health: We cannot wait for at-risk veterans to become homeless before we provide needed counseling. We need an open and aggressive collaboration between New Jersey’s two VA hospitals and private and non-profit mental health professionals to deliver services to the broader veterans population.
- Higher education: Every veteran who wishes to go back to school after their service to our nation concludes should be met with open doors, not roadblocks. Our state’s colleges and universities must better coordinate directly with veterans organizations, including the in-state chapters of Student Veterans of America to smooth the transition from battlefield to classroom.
- Veteran-owned businesses: Veteran-owned businesses are vital members of our state’s small business community, and we must redouble efforts to ensure that they receive the institutional support and access to capital they need to expand and create and support good jobs.
- Military transitions and families: The challenges faced by veterans are also many times faced by their spouses and families, and a stand-alone department can ensure they aren’t lost in the shuffle back to civilian life.
A Department of Veterans Affairs can more effectively track performance against various metrics — unemployment, homelessness, skills development, number of veteran-owned businesses, and satisfaction with the Department’s programs — when it does not have the dual-track of managing active military operations.
Changing New Jersey’s bureaucratic culture is never easy, but institutional inertia is not an excuse for inaction. Veterans across our state are asking for leadership that responds to their needs. They have served us valiantly at home and abroad and have had our back in times of war and peace — now it’s time we have theirs.