Defending those who defended us

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Every Veterans Day and Memorial Day, politicians across the political spectrum give fine speeches about their respect and admiration for the veterans of our country. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I have learned that, regardless of political ideology, most members of Congress mean what they say and fully understand and appreciate the enormous sacrifices veterans and their families have made for our nation.

The good news is that President Obama and Congress have made real progress in addressing a number of the problems facing veterans. The bad news is that we still have a very long way to go if we are to keep faith with those who have put their lives on the line to defend us. 

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Speeches are great. Action is more important. 

Congress cannot bring back those who died in battle. Congress cannot restore the legs and arms and eyesight that roadside explosions have taken away. Congress cannot cure the hundreds of thousands who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, or those who suffer from the pain and humiliation of sexual assault. As a nation, however, we can do better to ease and ameliorate some of the very serious problems facing the veterans’ community.

Congress can help the 2,300 men and women who were looking forward to having families but suffered reproductive injuries in the wars. Army veteran Matt Keil of Colorado was wounded by sniper fire in Iraq in 2007. The sniper’s round struck Matt’s neck, causing severe damage to a vital artery and his spinal cord. Through sheer determination and with the love and resolve of his wife, Tracy, Matt’s condition improved. He and Tracy began to consider having children. Doctors assured them that having children could be possible with the help of in vitro fertilization. The Keil family paid more than $30,000 for reproductive treatments. Congress can ease that financial burden.

Congress can help the tens of thousands of family members who, every single day, provide loving care for those who were severely injured in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other wars. In March of 1969, Miles Epling was on patrol in Vietnam when a booby trap detonated, killing some of his fellow Marines and leaving him without his legs. He returned home to West Virginia in a wheelchair. From that point on, he has required around-the-clock help from those around him. His family provided that help without receiving any training, assistance or financial support. Thirty-five years later, Miles has come a long way, but he still needs help, and Congress can do more for caregivers. Congress recently passed an excellent caregivers program for post 9/11 veterans. It must expand that program for the families of all disabled veterans.

Because we have the moral obligation to do the very best we can for veterans, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has brought forth comprehensive legislation that is strongly supported by virtually every veterans and military organization in the country, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Military Officers Association of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Gold Star Wives of America and many more. In its statement of support, the VFW called it the most comprehensive veterans legislation to be introduced in decades.

This legislation would expand and improve healthcare and benefits for all generations of veterans and their families. It would expand the current caregiver law to include all generations of veterans. It would provide advance appropriations to ensure monthly compensation, pension payments and education benefits are protected from future budget battles. The bill would also offer in-state tuition protection for recently transitioned veterans, improve access to mental health and treatment for victims of sexual assault in the military, and authorize construction of clinics to serve veterans in rural and remote communities. It also would fully repeal a 1 percent cut in annual retirement benefits for working-age military retirees and their families.

This comprehensive legislation also would:

Expand VA healthcare: In addition to improved access to healthcare, dental care would be dramatically expanded and complementary and alternative medicine would become more accessible. Unfettered access to VA healthcare for recently separated veterans would be extended from 5 to 10 years.

Adopt advance appropriations for the VA: Veterans would get consistent access to benefits by establishing advance appropriations for the mandatory accounts at the VA.

Help end the benefits backlog: Members from both sides of the aisle have presented legislative solutions incorporated in this bill that would support the VA’s ongoing efforts to improve its claims system.

Help veterans in college: Post 9/11 veterans would get a fairer shot at college without incurring additional financial burdens.

Promote jobs: Provisions in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 would be renewed and a Veterans Retraining Assistance Program would be extended for two years.

Improve sexual assault assistance: Veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military would receive more help. 

Congress cannot heal all wounds caused by war, but it must provide assistance to families like the Keils, Eplings and thousands of others who have served our nation. This comprehensive legislation must be passed.

Sanders is the junior senator from Vermont, serving since 2007. He is chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and sits on the Budget; the Environment and Public Works; the Energy and Natural Resources; and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees.