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Veterans Affairs secretary: New GI benefits a plus

Free college tuition will boost recruiting, says Peake.

By / June 27, 2008

Evan Vucci/AP

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The new GI bill "is a positive thing for our armed forces," said Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake. The legislation that Congress passed June 26 and is sending to the president provides veterans full in-state tuition and fees for enrollment in a public college.

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Secretary Peake said the legislation, which also funds operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, "will help in terms of recruiting."

Before his service at the VA, Peake earned a medical degree and rose to be a three-star general and surgeon general of the Army.

The secretary will have a short tenure in the second-largest federal department since he did not take office until December 2007. He told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast, Friday, that his goal before the Bush administration left office was to make sure the organization "has a blueprint forward to do the right thing for our veterans. That is what our obligation is."

Modernization is a key step in that blueprint. "We need to change some of our medical models out there and some of our cultures ... because we have mostly been dealing with older men" from the World War II and Vietnam eras, Peake said. Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan "are at a different stage of their life, ready to reenter with their families, ready to reenter society, and I think shifting to make sure we do the right adjustments for them is more the issue," he said.

Among other changes, Peake said the department was "actively trying to reshape our approach to women" including requiring each VA medical facility to have a full-time women's coordinator. Roughly 14 percent of military personnel are now women versus 2 percent in 1950, he said.

The VA has a more demanding clientele than in the past, Peake said. "There is perhaps a great sense of expectation among not only the service member but families and I actually agree with that." Peake said one goal is to do more "to support the family."

A recent Rand Corporation study estimated that some 300,000 of the 1.6 million troops deployed for operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Asked about the study, Peake sought to put those findings in context, noting the "spectrum" of military personnel returning from war zones.

"You probably need to be a sociopath not to have some effect when you have seen the kinds of things our folks are being exposed to," he said. Peake was wounded in Vietnam and won a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. "It doesn't mean you have a disorder that is going to be longstanding and problematic for the rest of your life.... In some cases, there is clearly going to be people that will have long-term effects and long-term disability in their ability to function and enjoy life and those kinds of things. And we need to deal with them. There are others [who] I think that with support early and engagement early will be just fine over time."

In discussing assistance for vets whose problems are most severe, Peake said he was "very willing to start to try to work with outside organizations that want to do good for our veterans and their families." He has started an office to focus on outreach to organizations that want to help and has had discussions with Major League Baseball about the topic. "So I am actually excited about the notion that ... it is not just a federal responsibility, it is a national responsibility," he said.