“I love my country. I was proud to do it,” he said, the sun catching the Vietnam War Veteran pin clipped to his lapel as he walked away.
Almost every time I shake hands with a veteran to offer thanks for his or her service to our nation, that is the response I get. Our veterans are often remarkable for not seeking any special attention for what they have contributed to this country. They have a quiet humility about them; they are happy to blend into their communities. Sometimes a small pin on a lapel is the only way to know when we are in their presence.
We are a nation that is overwhelmingly thankful for our veterans’ service. I see it when a mom stops to introduce her son to a veteran at the grocery store while explaining he is an American hero. I see it when the businessman, weary from weeks of travel, offers his first class seat to a wounded warrior. I see it when a young person asks to interview his elderly neighbor next door for his class paper on Veterans Day. I see it when a stadium of fans rises to their feet to cheer for the men and women who have returned home to our country. We as American citizens are grateful.
However, our government is falling short. It is struggling to support the 22 million veterans who supported our nation through sacrifice and service.
Cuts included in last year’s budget agreement prevented a full cost-of-living increase for military retirees of working age. The national unemployment rate is 6.6%, but the unemployment rate for young iraq and Afghanistan veterans is 7.9%.
For those veterans who have transitioned home and need services provided through the Veterans Administration, there is national backlog. Over half a million of our nation’s heroes are still waiting for the benefits they were promised – benefits they’ve earned and rightly deserve. While approximately 58% of veterans’ appeals are backlogged, two-thirds of employees at the Va received bonuses totaling roughly $5.5 million at the end of 2011 for “excellent” or “outstanding” performance.
Many veterans’ hospitals fall short of excellent standards due to lack of stable budgeting and oversight. Veterans’ hospitals are three-times more overcrowded than non-veterans’ hospitals and many veterans must drive long distances to reach the nearest Va hospital to receive care.
Have we prioritized the needs of our veterans? These circumstances tell us that we have not. Our government is failing on its promises, and we have a lot of work to do to catch up. Our service members have made extraordinary sacrifices for this country and, while we can never begin to fully repay them, our government has a duty to do our utmost to serve them once they come home. Our government should be setting the example.
To show we are fully committed to our veterans, certain things must happen. We must provide uncompromised care, excellence in hospital care and benefits without strings. Our veterans deserve quality care, and that means having ready access to care.
We must refuse to allow Va employees to accept bonuses until the claims backlog is cleared. We must refuse to place the burden of our fiscal challenges on the backs of our service members; defense spending in support of our men and women in uniform is not the cause of our fiscal woes, and cutting the benefits earned by our brave service members is not the solution.
We should offer in-state tuition to our veterans regardless of where they live. The men and women who serve this nation did not just defend citizens of their own home states but the citizens of all 50 states.
We must provide retirement pay and benefits as promised. Most importantly, we must make a commitment to asking ourselves – how can we strengthen and empower our warriors after they return home?
I have made it a point to ask myself that question throughout my time in Congress. That’s why I championed a veterans’ outpatient clinic in Emporia that provides access to care for rural veterans. It’s one of the reasons I staunchly opposed sequestration. That’s why I’ve pressed the Va on its backlog and the bonuses it gave employees. That’s why I supported reversing the cost of living cuts that were included in last year’s budget agreement, for those who enlisted or received commissions prior to January 1, 2014. That’s why, most recently, I supported the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act, a bipartisan bill that would enable G.I. Bill recipients to receive in-state tuition rates at any public college or university in the country.
Veterans are a part of our lives by the freedoms we enjoy every day as Americans. We are grateful for their service to our country. It should be our privilege as a government to honor the commitments we have made to them and to strengthen their quality of life after they have returned home. We should be proud to do it.
Randy Forbes represents the Fourth District in Congress.