By LLOYD DOGGETT
Each year on Memorial Day, Americans come together to remember those who have sacrificed their lives on behalf of our country in the name of freedom and democracy. The debt owed to them is immeasurable. Their sacrifices and those of their military families are freedom’s foundation. Without the brave efforts of all the service men and women and their families, our country would not live so freely.
Today, as we rightly extol the tremendous contribution and sacrifice of our veterans, we should respond in deeds as well as words. The needs of those who serve do not end on the battlefield, and neither should our obligation to them.
We promise to help them succeed. With this economic crisis, Congress has enacted critical measures to expand educational opportunity and economic relief to make a real difference in the lives of veterans right here in Central Texas. The new Post 9-11 GI Bill, which took effect in August, restores the promise of a full, four-year college education for our American veterans, which I believe is part of jumpstarting a new American economic recovery, just like after World War II. And we have extended those crucial college benefits to all children of fallen service members since 9-11.
Recognizing that veterans coming home are facing double digit unemployment, as part of the Recovery Act to put Americans back to work rebuilding America, Congress provided nearly two million disabled veterans a $250 payment to help make ends meet.
We promise to provide the benefits they have earned and support military families. Many of our troops have served multiple tours of duty, with great strain on their families and substantial cost to their finances. In response, Congress provided special $500 payments for every month the 185,000 service members and veterans were forced to serve under stop-loss orders since 2001. Congress also has taken steps to reduce the backlog and wait for veterans trying to access their earned benefits.
This year, we increased military pay 3.4 percent and expanded TRICARE health benefits. We are building more military child care centers and better barracks and military family housing. With more than 100,000 service members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the recognition of the sacrifice that military families make every day has never been more important.
For wounded veterans, Congress just enacted landmark legislation to provide help to family members and other caregivers of disabled, ill or injured veterans, such as training, counseling, and respite care, and to eliminate copayments for catastrophically disabled veterans. Congress also provided family leave benefits for families of our wounded warriors.
We promise to meet their needs for high-quality health care. With the strong support of veterans organizations, this Congress has made an unprecedented commitment to veterans’ health care. The veterans budget, hailed as a “cause for celebration,” provides the largest funding increase for health care and other services ever requested by a President – even more than veterans organizations requested.
We have increased the investment in veterans’ health care and services by 60 percent since January 2007 — including the largest single increase in the 78-year history of the Veterans Administration (VA). This funding has strengthened health care for more than five million veterans, resulting in 17,000 new doctors and nurses, and greater access for veterans in rural areas. It has been critical for the 382,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in need of care this year— with expanded mental health screening and treatment—to treat the signature injuries of the war, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. And, we’ve begun to see a real difference in the lives of veterans right here in Central Texas — we’ve seen longer hours, expanded services, and more parking at our Austin Outpatient Clinic.
On 35 acres off SH 71, we are building the largest veterans clinic of its kind anywhere in America. This will triple the size of the existing clinic and double the clinic staff. Three times as much space for healthcare means more care in Austin and fewer trips to Temple or beyond. Meanwhile, the satellite clinic that opened in La Grange last year, the first of its type here, means more care locally for many of our oldest vets and relief on the backlog at Montopolis.
For the 1.8 million women who have bravely served, Congress just enacted legislation expanding and improving VA health care services for women veterans, providing care of newborn children of women veterans for the first time in history, and enhancing treatment for PTSD and sexual trauma.
This is government-provided health care that works, and together, we can continually make it work better.
We promise to leave no soldier or veteran behind. On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind.
Because local vets, who I first met through annual Veterans Day gatherings across Central Texas, came to me with concerns about some other local veterans in danger of losing their jobs after using up their sick leave to get treatment for service-connected injuries, I wrote and the House has passed The Wounded Veterans Job Security Act — so our veterans will not have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.
We must remember that the return of a soldier to civilian life is a tradition as old as the Republic itself. Just outside the House chamber, in the Great Rotunda of the Capitol, is a portrait of General George Washington resigning his command in the Continental Army at the close of the American Revolution.
In his Farewell Orders to his troops in November 1783, Washington praised the “brave men, retiring victorious from the field of war to the field of agriculture.” Washington urged his soldiers to participate in “all the blessings which have been obtained.” We have a duty to provide our veterans will the quality healthcare they have earned.
Those veterans here — whether you wore a uniform last week or last before I was born — you understand a fundamental truth: our military is not the strongest in the world because of our tanks, our ships, or our fighter jets. Rather, it is because of the dedication, spirit, skill, and bravery demonstrated by men and women, who have put on our uniform for the cause of freedom and the red, white, and blue.
Thank you for your dedicated service and together we will continue working to honor it.