Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: A small victory for veterans

Jim Cahill, center, is flanked by his son Sgt. Jay Cahill, left, and nephew Col. Mark Mitchell after his son’s 2008 graduation from a nursing program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Jim Cahill, center, is flanked by his son Sgt. Jay Cahill, left, and nephew Col. Mark Mitchell after his son’s 2008 graduation from a nursing program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Courtesy Jim Cahill

Returning home hasn’t been easy for our latest generation of war veterans. It’s not just the well-publicized and shameful waiting lists for VA health care and delays for disability claims. It’s also the struggle for basics such as finding decent jobs or going back to school.

Just ask Jim Cahill about his ridiculously long slog to smooth the way for his son and others who were medics in the military to become nurses in the civilian world. He never thought it would take nearly five years of beating his head against the wall of the state Capitol just to get a small victory.

Cahill, a 66-year-old Vietnam vet who lives in Placerville, believes one reason why veterans get short shrift is the lack of a personal connection. Few legislators, educators and officials are veterans, or have family or friends who are in the military or who have served recently.

“If it’s not Veterans or Memorial Day, the rest of the time we’re told to go shopping,” he says.

He’s right. As we commemorate another Veterans Day on Wednesday, it should remind us that only one half of one percent of Americans have served in the all-volunteer military during the “war on terror.” Many have been repeatedly sent into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan – and maybe soon in Syria.

On Veterans Day, it isn’t enough to honor the 1.85 million veterans in California. We also should ask: Why do our bureaucrats and politicians have to make it so hard for our vets to improve their own lives?

To be fair, there is more focus and money on brain injury, homelessness, post-traumatic stress and unemployment among post-9/11veterans, and there has been some progress. State and federal politicians and officials are only too happy to brag about this or that program. For instance, Rep. Ami Bera and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker are set Wednesday for a tour – and photo opportunity – at a Sacramento pavement maintenance business owned by a veteran.

There would be far fewer advances, however, without advocacy groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and individuals such as Cahill pushing them to act.

I first wrote about the medic training legislation in May 2012, part of a series on the challenges facing post-9/11 vets. The proposal made all sorts of sense as a way to ease the shortage of primary care nurses, especially in rural areas, and to offer meaningful jobs to vets.

The bill got blocked, partly due to resistance from nursing schools, but Cahill kept at it. In January 2014, he sent a scathing report to the state Department of Veterans Affairs complaining about roadblocks. Over the past five years, he figures he’s sent thousands of emails, made hundreds of phone calls, attended 25 CalVet meetings and testified at 10 legislative hearings.

“I persisted,” he says, an understatement.

The payoff came last month when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 466, which requires the state nursing board to grant a license to military medics who have an honorable discharge and meet certain requirements. The new law also threatens nursing schools with losing state certification if they don’t give proper credit for military medic training and experience.

When he found out that the bill had been signed, Cahill sent out an email alert headlined, “It’s about time!!”

It came too late, however, for Cahill’s son Jay, who tried to get credit for his Army training as a combat medic and a year in Iraq when he applied at Sacramento State’s nursing school. He got tired of waiting and graduated pre-med from Sac State in December.

Now, Cahill is taking on an even tougher fight – this time in Congress, where legislation can get even more gridlocked and where well-financed lobbyists can be even more powerful.

Too many veterans get preyed upon by for-profit colleges, which want their GI Bill benefits but don’t give much education in return. The Federal Trade Commission and Attorney General Kamala Harris are investigating one of the most prominent, the University of Phoenix.

Last month, the Pentagon temporarily barred it from recruiting on military bases and new students from enrolling using military benefits. Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. House members introduced a bill to restore benefits to veterans caught up in the shutdown in April of Corinthian Colleges, another big for-profit chain.

Part of the problem is a loophole in the law. While for-profit schools are not allowed to take in more than 90 percent of their tuition from financial aid, veterans’ benefits don’t count toward that total, giving these schools a huge incentive to go after vets.

Cahill says one big lesson he’s learned is that money drives how veterans are treated in higher education. He’s trying to round up support for a U.S. Senate bill to close the loophole that has floundered since being introduced in June. “The for-profits are fighting like crazy to keep it,” he says.

If veterans risk their lives in faraway lands only to become “cash cows” at home, that is truly a disgrace.