Between sequestration, backlogs and wait lists at Veterans Affairs hospitals, and the delicate balance of defense spending and national security, Congress has some difficult votes ahead with lasting consequences on Central Texas.
The declining number of veterans in Congress could impact these decisions and many more in the future. Nearly 20 percent of congressional members are veterans — the lowest percentage since it peaked in 1977 when 80 percent of Congress had military experience, according to data compiled by the Air Force Sergeants Association.
In Central Texas — an area with a dense veteran and active-duty population — none of its representatives in Washington, D.C., are veterans.
The number of veterans in Congress is expected to decline along with the number of veterans in the general population. Today, about 7 percent of Americans served in the military and less than 1 percent currently serve. In Bell County, about 12 percent of residents are veterans, according to census data.
As one of the 89 veterans in the House, U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, said until that shift happens, veterans should be in “great shape.”
“That said, we’re also approaching an era where we will put the military through spending cuts,” he said. “We’re in a transition phase of the halcyon days of the last 12 years. We’ve treated the folks in uniform much, much better than those coming out of Vietnam.”
One example of continued support is last week’s passage of the $217 billion Veterans Affairs Department and budget plan for next fiscal year, Conaway said. Only one congressman voted against it. The bill also included $6.6 billion for military construction projects.
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, also used this bill as an example of support and said he sees a strong advocacy for veterans in Washington, D.C.
“We all take our responsibility seriously as we continue to pass legislation, like Wednesday’s bill, which ‘keeps our word’ to those who have sacrificed so much for every American,” he said in an emailed statement.
To keep himself abreast on the issues concerning the military and veterans, Carter said he employs veteran staff members and meets with people within his district on weekend trips home.
In the upcoming November elections, Central Texas has one veteran hoping to unseat Carter and serve in Congress. Louie Minor, who still serves as an Army Reserve captain, said it’s important for Central Texas to have a representative with military service.
“It’s more than just numbers in a line item,” he said of reviewing military issues for proposed legislation. “When you have someone who’s a veteran looking at stuff, they know how it affects communities and families,” he said. “We don’t have someone fighting for us.”
Conaway said as the number of veterans in Congress continues to decline, America will see how that plays out for the military.
“We must make sure we don’t lose the appreciation (of service),” he said. “Some of the most important decisions we make are military spending.”
When retired Col. Bill Parry, executive director of the Killeen-based Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, speaks to veteran organizations about Congress, he warns them of the steep uphill climb involved in explaining military issues to civilians.
“When you’re looking at trying to sit down and have a discussion with elected officials ... you have to realize the people you’re talking to don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” Parry told the local chapter of the Military Officers Association of America last month. The organization advocates for military and veterans benefits. “That ought to just scare the hell out of you.”
His advice to a successful conversation?
“KIS — Keep it simple,” Parry responded.