With over 73,000 veterans and over 19,000 active duty military in Alaska, it’s critical our state take an active role toward improving services for military members and their families. In my oversight role regarding military and veteran affairs in Alaska and as a representative for East Anchorage, there are three ways I have done this:
1. Sponsorship and support of military legislation.
2. Funding of programs that aid active duty military and veterans.
3. Advocating for Alaskan military members and veterans before federal agencies.
Throughout the years, I have consistently worked with individual service members, JBER and local community leaders, state agencies and veteran organizations on ways to improve services and quality of life for veterans, active duty military members and families who call Alaska home.
OPPOSING JBER TROOP REDUCTIONS
In July 2015, the US Army announced it would be downsizing the 4-25 Brigade Combat Team at JBER by over 2,600 active duty soldiers. This this loss would have a huge impact on our military families, the economy and our East Anchorage community as a whole.
I have worked to prevent these cuts — testifying in front of the DOD, serving on the Municipality’s Base Economic Analysis Review (BEAR) Working Group, and supporting public meetings to assess the reduction’s impact on our neighborhoods, schools and local businesses.
Thanks to the work of many, JBER troop reductions are on-hold for now. I am watching this effort closely and I will continue to work to keep the 4-25 here in Alaska.
ALASKA CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE
In 2015, I introduced legislation to overhaul Alaska’s seldom used and outdated Code of Military Justice (ACMJ). A non-partisan legislative research report revealed shortcomings in the ACMJ and found that Alaska National Guard leadership was largely unaware the Code even existed. By clarifying the jurisdiction of military vs. civilian authorities and better outlining policies and procedures, an ACMJ update would help to provide a safe and healthy working environment in Alaska’s National Guard, which I hoped would be a top priority for the legislature.
On August 20, 2016, I was proud to witness the Governor sign an ACMJ update into law. This bi-partisan effort was a huge endeavor with many involved, and its passage a major step forward.
Areas of concern I have heard over and over from the veteran community include access to health care, employment opportunities and the increasing number of veterans facing homelessness.
Veterans unemployment rate for young men is nearly double that of the average unemployment rate—a state of affairs I find completely unacceptable. That’s why I passed legislation to provide incentives for businesses to hire recently separated, unemployed veterans, and have continued to fight to keep this legislation in place.
Service members receive a great deal of experience that is currently not be transferred to civilian employment. I worked with the Department of Defense to pass legislation which now allows service members to apply their skills learned in the military to an occupational license and toward credit at the University of Alaska and vocational facilities around the state.
It’s frustrating for me to constantly hear from veterans that healthcare is either not accessible or not being provided. Bureaucracy can create obstacles to treatment, which is why I have been sharing concerns with officials at the VA and working with individuals to provide assistance when needed.
My colleagues and I recently wrote a letter to Laura Eskenazi, the Vice Chairman and Executive in Charge of the Board of Veterans Appeals, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, requesting immediate in-person proceedings in Alaska by the Board of Veterans Appeals. The Board has a panel whose specific purpose is to travel across the country to hear in-person from veterans who have filed an appeal and for whom travel is costly or physically prohibitive. The Board has not visited Alaska since 2012. This is simply unacceptable.
Progress has been made in Alaska in delivering affordable and local health care to rural veterans. An agreement between the VA and several Alaska Native tribal health programs will allow veterans to receive health care services in tribal clinics in various parts of Alaska. In addition, a $300,000 grant was awarded to Alaska to expand, modernize, and streamline telehealth services for veterans which will save time and money for veterans living in rural Alaska who would otherwise have to travel to receive care.
To address the increasing number of veterans without a place to live, I have been working with community organizations on a housing project that will provide housing, food, access to medical services, counseling and employment services. In addition, supporting established groups who provide veterans with a warm meal, a warm, safe place to stay, and employment opportunities, is so important. Part of the effort entails improving communication and raising awareness of existing support groups, thereby helping to connect veterans with the services that are already available to them.
Over the years, I have worked closely with the community and organizations to ensure we are working together to improve and increase services. Some of the projects include the Alaska Veteran Foundation to provide housing for homeless veterans, Armed Services YMCA for military family projects and transportation for service members, American Legion Post 29 for building maintenance and repair, Vets Helping Vets to provide services for homeless veterans, and funding to move the Veterans Service Office off JBER to a more accessible location in East Anchorage.