Navy Reserve Cmdr. Jeremy Butler is pressing an ambitious agenda on Capitol Hill for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in an ongoing effort that is now without the high-profile presence of group founder Paul Rieckhoff.
Butler, the incoming IAVA chief executive officer, will lead one of the group's periodic "Storm the Hill" lobbying missions next month on a range of issues, from implementation of the Mission Act's private health-care options to a renewed drive on burn pits compensation.
Last week, Butler was the guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, at the State of the Union address and drew inspiration from the lengthy tribute from both sides of the aisle to three D-Day veterans.
In an IAVA video following the address, and in an interview Thursday with Military.com, Butler said the ovations in the House Chamber could point the way to bipartisan consensus on veterans' issues in the new Congress.
As for President Donald Trump's address, "there wasn't much there" in terms of a veterans agenda, he said.
Trump spoke to more accountability for VA employees, but there was "nothing that really gives us any idea of what the administration's long-term plans" are for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Butler said.
Last week, he picked up Rieckhoff's mantle by attending the CNN town hall with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is mulling an independent presidential candidacy.
Butler said he intends to be a constant presence on the campaign trail, a job that Rieckhoff perfected as a frequent guest on talk shows and at congressional hearings.
Both sides in the nation's political divide "genuinely agree that they want to help veterans, that we need to help our veterans. We just need to fine-tune the details," Butler said.
That was why he attended the State of the Union and the Schultz town hall, and why he intends to have an IAVA presence at "every event for every candidate. Not to show support or lack of support for that candidate, but to make sure that they are talking about veterans issues," he said.
Butler acknowledged that it will be difficult to get the media traction that came easily to Rieckhoff, a former Army National Guard infantry lieutenant who served in the invasion of Iraq and projected a forceful, no-nonsense image on TV.
"I'm going to be doing more of it," Butler, a surface warfare officer who served on the Perry-class frigate Gary in the Gulf in the early stages of the Iraq war, said of the public appearances at which Rieckhoff excelled. "I don't think I'll ever be as good on social media or in the press as he is. He's one of the best, but I've learned a lot."
IAVA's Way Forward Without Its Main Cheerleader
Rieckhoff "continues to remain very active" and will remain on IAVA's board of directors, which includes retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and "Lone Survivor" director Peter Berg, Butler said.
"He's going to continue to be an incredible spokesperson for veterans' issues. He's definitely not going away," Butler said.
In stepping down last month as CEO, Rieckhoff cited the birth of his second child and said he is working on a book and a new podcast.
"Outside of building my family, founding and leading IAVA has been the greatest honor of my life," he said in a statement. "All our groundbreaking work has always truly been a team effort. Together, we have defined the national dialogue for a new generation of veterans, changed countless lives and positively impacted history forever."
He said that IAVA had inspired a "new greatest generation" of leaders and showed the world that "veterans are not a charity; we're an investment."
Rieckhoff called Butler "uniquely qualified to lead IAVA into [the] next chapter and fight on behalf of all veterans."
In Rieckhoff's absence, IAVA is pressing a "Big Six" agenda to curb suicides, defend GI Bill benefits, improve services for female veterans, reform government support of veterans care, push for burn pits legislation, and support medical marijuana.
"Passing the 'Big Six' will be a huge priority for 2019," Butler said. "We want to present a blueprint for how Americans can empower veterans."
Butler said he is well aware of the political reality that any progress on the agenda must come this year, before all of the legislative oxygen is drained by the 2020 presidential election season.
The general rule is that "if anything is going to get done, it will get done" in the first year of the new Congress. The second year will be consumed by presidential politics, he said.
The urgency for IAVA, which bills itself as "the premier veterans advocacy and support organization on the planet" with about 425,000 members and a budget of $5 million, is to join with other veterans service organizations in overseeing implementation of the VA Mission Act, which has been hailed by the Trump administration for its expansion of private health-care options.
Butler cited a recent IAVA survey of 4,600 members showing that 81 percent rate health care at the VA as average or above average.
"What that tells us is that veterans like the care they're getting. They want to continue to receive their care from the VA," he said.
"We just need to make sure that they continue to have that access to it" under the Mission Act, said Butler, who echoed the fears of some advocates that a rapid expansion of private-care options could eventually lead to the "privatization" of VA health care. "We generally are against privatization of the VA," he said.
Butler said he also is encouraged by the recent reintroduction of burn pits legislation in the House and Senate following the Supreme Court's rejection last month of an appeal from veterans that would have held private companies liable for toxic exposures from the open-air pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was disappointing," he said of the Supreme Court ruling, but new bills in Congress offer the possibility of bringing the VA to the realization that "they need to be taking care of the veterans that were exposed to the harmful toxins of the burn pits."
"We're really excited about the possibility of getting the burn pits accountability act passed," Butler said. IAVA has called the burn pits the "Agent Orange" issue of the post-9/11 generation of veterans.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.