- More than 5 million vets may not receive benefits next month if gridlock continues, groups say
- Veterans could be left without money for rent, education, other needs, groups say
- "It's time for the country to fulfill our promises to the men and women who served," speaker says
Nearly a hundred veterans from several dozen military coalitions converged at the National World War II Memorial in Washington on Tuesday to protest the partial shutdown of the government that they say could put more than 5.5 million service members at risk of not receiving their monthly benefits by November 1.
Flanked by veterans from various wars, Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said from the podium: "Our message to the President and Congress (is), defaulting on not paying veteran's benefits is not an option. We are here to tell them it's time for the country to fulfill our promises to the men and women who served."
According to the military coalition, veterans make up 27% of the federal workforce. The coalition is concerned about whether veterans who receive disability and GI Bill benefits or rely on survivor benefits will receive their next check.
Former Army Capt. Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, directed his frustration over the shutdown at what he considered political posturing by Congress.
"Inside the beltway, this is a game to them -- they're scoring points, they're poll testing what they're saying. Outside of the beltway, these are people's lives," he said.
Last week Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki told a congressional panel that if the shutdown does not end soon, the VA will not be able to assure the delivery of checks to more than 3 million veterans and their family members. This amounts to $6.25 billion in payments, including compensation and pensions, survivor benefits, educational vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits.
"Tuition and stipends for over 500,000 veterans service members and eligible family members and education programs will also stop," Shinseki said.
Tarantino added that the biggest concerns for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are their disability payments and their GI bills.
"Schools might be able to wait for tuition and fees, but your landlord can't. So we're talking about real effects on people's lives, potentially making people homeless and taking away the things that they need to transition from warriors back to citizens."
Frank Yanick, a retired chief petty officer in the Navy, recalls the day he was in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. "Some of (the veterans) are living on food stamps and whatever they can get," he said. He's hoping for a presidential executive order to end the shutdown.
Speaking exclusively to CNN, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, explained that the funds for veterans were intact.
"We changed the VA a few years ago to where we fund the VA a year in advance of everything else. ... That money is already out there for that agency," he said.
Instead he questioned whether the staff needed to process and deliver those millions of checks has been furloughed.
The VA's efforts to reduce the backlog in compensation claims "has stalled, and, in fact, has increased by about 2,000 claims," Shinseki testified. The Veterans Benefits Administration has already furloughed more than 7,000 of its more than 21,000 employees, half of whom are veterans.
But retired Marine Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, said the more immediate impact of the government shutdown can be felt among the 1.1 million reservists he represents, whose training has already stopped from lack of funding. Davis said it is now an issue of military preparedness.
"This is a very dangerous world in which we live that has adversaries and threats globally, who wish us harm and haven't stopped training and have not stopped fighting, and look at us and scratch their heads, and see us as potentially vulnerable."
"This unity that exists among veterans of all generations and all backgrounds -- quite frankly, it's the unity we don't see on Washington," said Paul Reickhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"We all stuck together when we were in combat; we put the mission first. We put our country first. Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, that is what you need to do now: Put the country first and end this shutdown."