The 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” opened the door to new possibilities for military servicemembers who identified as LGBTQ. After multiple generations faced discrimination, were expelled based on their sexual orientation, or were forced to hide their identity in order to serve in our armed forces, LGBTQ individuals are now able to serve freely and openly without fear of repercussion. This policy reversal was a major step forward for equality and respect for the dignity and honor of all those who were willing to fight for our country.
But seven years after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” trans servicemembers continue fighting for their rightful place in our military. In July 2017, President Trump issued a tweet stating that the United States would no longer allow trans individuals to serve in the military in any capacity. This directive effectively ordered the Department of Defense to ban trans troops – a move that dishonored brave trans soldiers. The U.S. Court system blocked this ban, but the President’s efforts persist.
In the midst of these efforts to undermine the service of members of the LGBTQ community, and minorities, Congress must help our country give rightful honor to all servicemembers and veterans.
The best way to honor our troops is by giving them the support they need, respecting and upholding their right to serve, and ensuring that they have access to quality care and the best resources to succeed in their transition to civilian life. As more openly LGBTQ servicemembers continue to enlist, as more women climb the ladder of military ranks, and as the veteran population becomes more diverse, the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) must adapt to these changing demographics.
In order to see this type of progress, Congress must help create a plan to help the VA adapt to the evolving needs of the veteran population and ensure that all veterans are receiving the best care. In the 116th Congress, Democrats have the opportunity to advance these priorities in the U.S. House of Representatives.
First, by being forward-thinking and predicting the challenges that lie ahead, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs can move to correct current problems and develop plans to address high priority issues over the next 10 years. Under a new Democratic majority, the Committee will develop a “VA 2030” plan that will envision how the Department can deliver good quality of care. Part of this strategy includes recognizing the differences in the types of benefits needed by veterans from different backgrounds.
For example, women veterans, LGBTQ veterans, and minority veterans all face unique challenges when attempting to receive VA services and care, and resolving these challenges requires innovative solutions. Increased diversity means that there must be an inclusive approach to benefits and care that the VA provides. Understanding these unique needs and adapting to demographic changes must be done to ensure that benefits and healthcare can be accessible and effective in meeting the needs of veterans. It is crucial to deliver on the promise of “access,” and to know that access does not look the same for every veteran. That is why the VA must evolve and improve the services that it provides – and Congress can help make this possible.
Apart from laying out a “VA 2030” vision to improve benefits and VA care, Congress must also prioritize performing proper oversight and demand better accountability from Department leadership. This means working with the VA to see that the more than 45,000 employee vacancies across the Department are being filled and fighting partisan and special-interest driven privatization efforts. Filling vacancies and fighting privatization are important priorities because more than 9 million veterans rely on the VA for their healthcare.
There are currently 40,000 employee vacancies in the Veterans Health Administration alone and this impacts timeliness and quality of care it provides. By filling these vacancies, delivery of care can be improved, and veterans can receive the best healthcare possible. It is also critical to fill these vacancies with qualified, diverse, and culturally competent staff who can provide better services to those who may need specialized care. Doing this will help the VA be better equipped to help heal and mend the visible and invisible scars veterans carry with them after their service.
All of this is necessary work that must be done, because all of our veterans deserve access to effective, high-quality care.
This January, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on which I currently serve as Vice-Ranking Member, will continue working to give rightful honor to all veterans – no matter their race, gender identity or sexual orientation. This Committee has a track record of putting the needs of veterans first and facilitating improvements that help make the VA work more effectively. In this regard, the next Congress will be no exception – real work will be done to improve the lives of every veteran and real solutions will be implemented to protect hard-earned benefits and increase access to high quality and timely care for all the brave individuals who have fought for our country.
Mark Takano represents California’s 41st congressional district in the U.S. House.