In 1865 — barely a month before the end of the Civil War — President Lincoln uttered the words which would solidify our nation’s commitment to those who have served and have become the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Lincoln committed our nation to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
As we honor our nation’s veterans today, we must realize the important debt we owe them, a debt we can never truly repay. We must not forget that the true cost of war goes far beyond dollars and cents. It is more than the cost of guns, tanks and planes and the number of zeros added to the federal deficit. The simple truth is that no human being returns from war unchanged. For every American lost in battle, many more are wounded. And for every wound we can see, there are many more we cannot see — invisible wounds and lives radically disrupted. As a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone, many hundreds of thousands of veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. And these wounds apply not just to the veterans themselves. That pain is experienced by the wives and husbands of veterans, by their children, by their parents.
On this Veterans Day I want to express a special thanks to Vermont veterans. In war after war, from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vermont service-members have been there when their country called. We are proud of their service.
Since World War II, more than 500,000 Americans have lost their lives in war. Millions more have received disability ratings by the VA.
As a nation, we have a moral obligation to provide for the wounded and ensure that all veterans receive every benefit they have earned and deserve. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I am proud of the work that Congress has done in recent years to improve and expand the services and benefits available to our veterans. Much has been accomplished. More needs to be done.
In Vermont, in recent years, we have been very aggressive in improving and expanding access to VA health care. In the last five years alone, brand new Community Based Outreach Clinics have been built in Newport, Brattleboro and Rutland, and a new facility has just opened in Burlington. We have also seen some major improvements at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, including the establishment of a new women’s health clinic.
Nationally, the post-9/11 GI Educational Bill has been a very successful step forward in providing educational opportunities to veterans and their families. The bureaucratic snags that prevent all eligible veterans from fully participating in the program must be removed.
The recently implemented Caregivers Program gives much needed support to those family members who are caring for the disabled veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. That legislation must be expanded to include all veterans.
The VA has, in the last five years, made good progress in transforming the benefits system from paper to an electronic records system. Nonetheless, the current backlog remains unacceptable. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has stated that by the end of 2015, all benefits will be processed within 125 days with a 98 percent accuracy rate. Our committee will work with the secretary to make sure that ambitious goal is reached.
For too many years, one of our great national disgraces has been the large number of veterans sleeping out on the streets. Between 2009 and 2012, the VA has reduced the population of homeless veterans by 17 percent. That progress must continue. To this end, bipartisan legislation has just passed the Senate which will continue our efforts to end homelessness in the veterans’ community.
In these hard economic times we have got to do everything we can to make certain that when veterans come back from war they are able to find jobs and regain their place in their communities. The committee is now working on legislation which will partner unemployed veterans with employers in the private sector and provide additional opportunities for our youngest generation of veterans who experience the highest rates of unemployment.
All veterans, particularly those with severe disabilities from their military service, deserve the very best care this country has to offer. The good news is that today’s VA provides high-quality, cost-effective health care to over 6 million veterans. The bad news is that there are many veterans who would like to access VA health care but, for one reason or another, are unable to do so. In my view, we should expand VA health care eligibility and allow those veterans who want and need VA health care to have access to it. We must also understand that the provision of dental care is a basic component of any comprehensive health care system. The VA must move forward to provide dental care to America’s veterans.
Veterans Day is the special day of the year that we honor our nation’s heroes. Our commitment to veterans, however, must extend to every day of the year. Together, in a bipartisan way, we must do all that we can to ensure that all veterans in this country get the quality health care and other benefits which they deserve.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
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