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Take Five: Sowers relishing role as 'outward face' of Veterans Administration

Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, speaks at St. Louis City Hall. The Rolla native was here for several events, including a ceremony  honoring businesses that hire veterans.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2013: Army veteran Tommy Sowers, a Rolla native, spent some time in the media spotlight when he was the Democratic nominee running against U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, in the 8th congressional district in 2010.

Since August of last year, though, Sowers has been most identifiable as the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s a post, he says, that serves as the public face of the agency. His “central mission” is to make sure “that veterans know and understand the benefits that they’ve earned through their service.”

“It is a true honor to be given the opportunity to make a difference,” Sowers said. “I work with a very talented group of people. And if we do our jobs well, veterans know the benefits that they’ve earned. And these benefits change their lives for the better.”

Sowers, a two-time recipient of the military’s Bronze Star, served in Kosovo and Iraq as a member of the Army’s special forces. Among other things, he has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

While his run at elective office proved unsuccessful, his life since then has been quite productive: He received a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics in 2011. In 2012, President Barack Obama nominated Sowers to his current post.

“I’m the youngest assistant secretary in the nation," said Sowers, adding that his 2010 run helped gain him some national recognition. "And I think that it’s a comment on [VA Secretary Eric Shinseki] and the president that they wanted somebody younger in that senior level.”

After a ceremony at City Hall to honor St. Louis-area businesses for hiring veterans, Sowers took some questions from the media. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

It’s my understanding that unemployment numbers for veterans are worse than the rest of the country. Is that true?

Sowers: A lot of misinformation is out there. We’re seeing that veterans are being employed at a greater rate than the general population. And that’s been the case for 70 out of the last 72 months. Another thing though that’s a real positive trend are post-9/11 veterans, people like me that served overseas.

Just in the last quarter, we have seen that (unemployment) rate fall beneath the national average. In the last June report it was 7.2 percent. So there’s still more work to be done here, but the trends are moving in the right direction.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle in the mind of employers that might look at a veteran and might pass on them?

Sowers: Well, I would say part of it is education. in generations past, the employer themselves tended to be veterans. Now very few people serve their country. We’re less than 1 percent. So now, it’s overcoming that (lack of knowledge and experience). And one of the ways we do that is through education.

With the post-9/11 G.I. bill, we’re closing in on our millionth beneficiary. Heck, it’s Dr. Sowers because of the post-9/11 G.I. bill. And it’s giving the veteran the skills that they need to compete in the workforce.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to make more a difference serving the executive branch than you ever could have if you had been elected to Congress?

Sowers: I’ll say this: I love the job that I’ve got. We’ve got a budget. I’ve got a staff. And we own the problem. So on the executive side, Secretary Shinseki and President Obama have focused very, very specifically on veterans. We’ve seen an expanded budget. We’ve seen a focus of resources and attention on this. And then we see positive effects – like seeing the veterans’ unemployment rate beneath the national average.

So it’s an opportunity to do good and we are doing good.

Your predecessor – U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois – recently made news when she grilled a contractor accused of unscrupulously taking advantage of a government set aside for veterans. What’s your take on that situation and is that a significant problem throughout the government?

Sowers: Certainly it’s a problem, and it is one of our focuses. We want to make sure that we’re not only moving quickly and getting the benefits to the veterans that they deserve, but we’re moving correctly to make sure that we are delivering the benefits in a way that truly honors those that served.

Do you see a challenge in getting more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans acclimated to civilian life as they came back from combat?

Sowers: What I’m seeing in the numbers is … only about 40 percent of veterans utilize the VA. My generation of veterans, 84 percent of post-9/11 veterans have enrolled in some aspect of the VA. It’s through great programs like the post-9/11 G.I. bill. It’s through our great health-care system. And it’s our benefits delivery. My generation is recognizing it.

Part of our task is to reach back to those folks that maybe left the service at time when the VA wasn’t as good and where the country didn’t honor their service as much. And we want to make sure that they come back to the VA.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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