This Veterans Day is extra special at the Veterans Affairs Department, because the agency is marking its 75th anniversary. It's one of the largest federal agencies, with 237,000 employees, and it has played a key role in every administration since President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order setting up the VA in 1930.
About 63 million people -- more than a fifth of the nation's population -- are potentially eligible for VA benefits and services because they are military veterans, family members or survivors of veterans.
In addition to providing educational benefits, home loans and disability compensation, the VA operates the nation's largest hospital system. The VA provides health care for 5.2 million veterans and operates 157 hospitals and more than 850 clinics.
Given the VA's responsibilities, it is no surprise that veterans' rights are among the most politically sensitive issues in Washington. This week, for example, some of the definitions that grew out of the 1944 Veterans' Preference Act were under scrutiny.
The law mandates that agencies give an edge to veterans when hiring to fill civil service positions. According to the Office of Personnel Management, 450,000 veterans work in the government, accounting for almost 26 percent of the federal workforce. Since 2000, the government has hired more than 133,000 veterans.
The 1944 law and subsequent legislation seek to define who is a veteran and which veterans are entitled to extra points when competing for federal jobs. In a letter to his colleagues Monday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested that it's time to tweak the definitions to erase any doubt that National Guard and Reserve troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will be eligible to receive veterans preference in federal hiring.
At the request of Durbin's staff, the Congressional Research Service tried to sort out how the military and federal agencies interpret such phrases as "separated from the armed forces" and "separated from active duty." In a report to Durbin, the research service said the "natural understanding" of the phrases suggests that they are saying the same thing but noted that OPM's regulations on veterans preference "are somewhat ambiguous."
Durbin has drafted a bill that would ensure reservists released from active duty qualify for veterans preference even though they may not have received a discharge certificate.
In a letter to Durbin, OPM rejected the suggestion that its rules might create a problem for returning reservists.
OPM's "policy position . . . has always been and continues to be that reservists who have been separated or discharged from otherwise qualifying active duty service are preference eligible," Linda M. Springer, the OPM director, wrote on Tuesday.
In addition to protecting federal job rights of veterans, the government also promotes outreach efforts to help them find jobs in the private sector.
Yesterday, the Labor Department announced that it will distribute 300,000 key fobs and wallet-sized cards over the next six months to veterans and military personnel who are leaving active duty. The cards will help veterans obtain help at career centers that try to match them up with employers.
Maj. Rob Palmer of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).
Russell Chew, chief operating officer for air traffic at the Federal Aviation Administration, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).
Bob Leins and Tammy Flanagan of the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. will offer tips on the 2006 federal employee health insurance open season and on flexible spending accounts and answer questions from listeners on "For Your Benefit" at 10 a.m. tomorrow on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).
"Thanks to Our Military and Veterans" will be the theme of the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).