Honoring our veterans: Accomplishments for our nation’s heroes
Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010 8:02 pm
By: John Tanner
By JOHN TANNER
Over the past two years, I have been honored to serve as the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary organization comprised of legislators from NATO member states. Our U.S. delegation has sought to bolster international support for our war efforts in Afghanistan, including the commitment of increased troop contributions from our European partners.
Our discussions have proven challenging, as the decision to place one’s fellow countrymen in harm’s way is a choice involving deep deliberation and considerate thought. My wife, Betty Ann, and I are reminded of this challenge every time we meet with our own Tennessee service members and their families.
Throughout our talks, we, like so many Tennesseans, are called to reflect on the great sacrifices required of these individuals. From the moment our service members enlist, the American people assume a responsibility to these men and women. We entrust our military to provide our troops with the best training and needed resources to ensure a successful mission, but our commitment to our troops extends beyond training and active duty service, and must also include the challenging transition from soldier to veteran.
Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs has long been underfunded, leaving our veterans at an unwarranted disadvantage. Encouraging progress is being made, and within the last three years, the U.S. Congress has provided a 60 percent increase for VA medical care funding and has passed and implemented important legislation. The House-passed version of each of these initiatives fully met the House’s recently restored requirement that all new spending be paid for without adding to the national debt.
• Better Treatment
The first National Defense Authorization Act passed by Democrats provided an additional three years of VA health care eligibility for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – for a total of five years. The bill incorporated Wounded Warrior Act provisions to improve treatments for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury. Increasing the budget baseline allowed VA to treat 193,000 new veterans and has plans to enroll an additional 99,000 veterans in the VA health care system.
• Expanded Access for Rural Veterans
Congress provided an additional $30 million in funding to increase the number of Community Based Outpatient Clinics for the more than 3.2 million veterans living in rural areas who do not have ready access to VA hospitals. The Caregiver Act, signed into law in May, establishes a grant program to increase transportation options for veterans in highly rural areas and expands the health care options available to rural veterans by authorizing stronger partnerships with community providers and the Department of Health and Human Services.
• A G.I. Bill for the 21st Century
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill covers the cost of a college education at a public university and includes a housing and book allowance. The law recognizes the sacrifice of Reserve and National Guard service and, for the first time, service members and veterans can transfer education benefits to spouses and children. Since August 2009, the VA has issued Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to more than 275,000 individuals.
• Strong VA Home Loan Program
World War II veterans received access to a valuable home loan program which in recent years has become obsolete. Last Congress, we were able to enact sweeping legislation to revamp and update this benefit. Congress increased the VA home loan limit to more adequately address current home prices and eliminate the equity requirement for veterans opting to refinance a VA loan. We also voted to protect returning service members and veterans by prohibiting foreclosure for nine months after combat duty.
• Landmark Support for Veteran Caregivers
The Caregiver Act immediately strengthened the support systems of veteran caregivers across the country. Veteran caregivers will soon have access to training programs, mental health counseling, and 24-hour respite care provided in the veteran’s home. Some caregivers of seriously injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan can qualify for a monthly financial stipend, access to VA health care if they are uninsured, and travel assistance when accompanying the veteran on medical care visits.
• Expanded Veteran Homelessness Prevention and Care
An increasing number of veterans of Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are at risk for homelessness. The Caregiver Act gives VA the authority to expand the number of places where homeless veterans may receive supportive services.
• Better Care for Female Veterans
Within 10 years, women are expected to become 10 percent of the patients receiving VA health care. The Caregiver Act expands and improves VA services for the 1.8 million female veterans currently receiving VA health care — AND goes one step further by anticipating the expected increase of women warriors over the next five years.
Aside from direct Congressional action, the VA made recent rule changes that will greatly benefit veterans in Tennessee and across the country. Congressional oversight efforts, coupled with bold legislation, has encouraged the VA to issue the following decisions:
• More Veterans to Qualify for PTSD Service Connection
VA simplified the process for Veterans claiming post-traumatic stress disorder. Prior to the new rule, veterans who applied for PTSD-related disability benefits were required to meet a stringent level of evidence, which delayed and denied benefits to thousands of veterans. Now in order to receive benefits, a potential recipient need only provide proof of service in a war zone, combined with a later diagnosis of PTSD.
• More Illnesses Connected to Agent Orange
In October 2009, VA established a service-connection for Vietnam veterans with three specific illnesses (B cell leukemias, Parkinson’s Disease and ischemic heart disease) based on evidence of an association with the herbicides referred to as Agent Orange. As a result, veterans who were physically stationed in Vietnam will no longer need to prove a connection between these illnesses and their military service. Unfortunately, a certain group of Vietnam veterans will not be treated or compensated as the VA continues to adhere to an arbitrary provision, requiring all beneficiaries to provide proof of “foot on land” in Vietnam. We strongly urge VA to reverse its decision and compensate these deserving veterans.
We want to ensure that all of our veterans and military families are aware of the various resources available to them. In particular, we ask veterans, their families and friends to be aware of signs of depression, as there is support for those who may be struggling. The National Suicide Prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK) has already served more than 115,000 veterans, family members and friends.
Honoring our American heroes is a responsibility we all share. Over the past three years, we have sought to pass and implement legislation that will make a real difference in the lives of our service members and their families. Americans see these initiatives as a small way of saying thank you to those who sacrifice so much on our behalf. We hope you, too will express your own gratitude to these brave men and women and thank them for their continued service to our nation, our communities and our families.
Tanner represents the 8th Congressional District in West and Middle Tennessee. Co-founder of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, he serves on the Ways and Means Committee, where he chairs the Trade Subcommittee, and on the Foreign Affairs Committee. A veteran of the U.S. Navy and the Tennessee Army National Guard, he chairs the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and is serving as NATO PA president.
Published in The Messenger 8.26.10