Proportionally, members of the Rhode Island National Guard are the second most heavily deployed in the nation, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said Thursday.
That being the case, Lt. Col. Dennis Riel questioned why the state doesn’t have a policy to give those returning from deployment preference for new job openings, or even their former jobs.
The issue was one of several, including the threat of cyber attacks, raised during an hour-long roundtable discussion between the senator and members of the Guard.
Whitehouse understood Riel’s point immediately.
“The most dangerous thing you can do in a bad job market is to take yourself out of the market,” he said.
Yet, he observed, that is just what is happening when Guard members are pulled out of their public or private sector jobs and deployed. He went on to say these people are being called to serve the interests of the country and also being placed in harm’s way.
According to a Fox News report, U.S. Labor Department officials say that unemployment among veterans age 18 to 24 tops 20 percent, compared to the national rate of about 9 percent. The situation was expected to get worse after 10,000 service members return from Afghanistan and 46,000 come home from Iraq by the end of 2011.
However, as sympathetic Whitehouse is to giving veterans first dibs on jobs, he said he is hesitant to pursue such a policy before assessing the impact of recently approved employer tax credits for hiring those returning from deployment.
“There’s a bit of a log jam in Washington,” he said. “Every piece of [proposed] legislation has failed except for this one.”
Depending on the length of unemployment and whether the veteran also has a disability, tax credits under the "Returning Heroes Tax Credit" range from $2,400 to $9,600. He hopes the tax credits will prove to be an important incentive that will enable employers wary of the economy, and a possible downturn, to cross that “tipping point” and bring on additional workers.
“That’s a good idea,” Whitehouse told Riel. “Let’s see how the tax credit goes first.”
Concern was also voiced for military funding and what would happen to the Guard, given the $1.2 trillion in budget cuts to be accomplished by a year from now. Of the total, $600 billion is to come from reductions in the defense budget. Captain James Allen of the 282nd Combat Company Squadron wanted to know where that would leave the Guard.
With the sequester provisions in the budget, he said, “There’s no money, we understand.” Allen was also fearful of cuts to the military medical plan, Tricare.
Whitehouse noted that the elimination of tax cuts are also linked to the January 2013 deadline, meaning that there is going to be an “enormous discussion” before action is taken.
Of some consolation, Whitehouse said, with service in Iraq and Afghanistan, “the Guard and Reserves have earned their way out of being the step-child.” He said, “the Guard has an equal or level footing, you’ve earned it.”
On the issue of health care, Whitehouse said the system nationwide is faced with $700 billion in excess costs.
“The system now is a Rube Goldberg contraption,” he said. He believes there are efficiencies to be made while improving outcomes. “I don’t want to be around when they’re throwing people off Tricare and Medicare.”
Calling himself “one of the most ardent members of the Senate on cyber attack,” Whitehouse painted a picture where China is pirating intellectual properties, such as computer programs and formulas, and also hacking into the digital infrastructure of financial institutions, utility companies and the military.
Asked after the meeting why he singled out the Chinese, Whitehouse said there have been a lot of public statements made that connect back to the Chinese. He cited situations where the theft of products developed at great cost in this country are being freely produced in China.
He said the private sector is “under resourced” to deal with cyber attacks and that greater public awareness is needed to take measures to prevent it.
He said the military is taking cyber attacks “very seriously.”
He offered a scenario where China could inform this country that, as an “internal matter,” it would be taking Taiwan back and threaten, after demonstrating that it had the capability, to shut down the power grid in our country if we object.
“We need to empower some of [the] national security agencies to protect our critical infrastructure,” he said.