Honor troops’ sacrifice, focus on vet issues

Memorial Day must not simply be a day for picnics and ballgames. It is a time to remember the service members who have died in defense of this nation and appreciate the unimaginable loss their families have experienced. From the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan, we mourn the lives of all those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But now is not just a time to reflect upon the past. It’s important that we also focus on the present and dedicate ourselves to do all that we can to support today’s veterans — many of whom came home from war wounded in body and in spirit. We know that while men and women may experience the horrors and stress of combat in different ways, no one returns from war unchanged. Some may have lost their legs, their arms or their eyesight. Others may be permanently impacted by the loss of a friend or by the taking of human life. Still others may have to deal with the incredible stress they developed by having to defend themselves 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — often against unseen death-threats like an IED along a road or a car driven by a suicide bomber.

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In recent years, we have come a long way in protecting the needs of our veterans, but more must be done.

Today, more than 6.5 million veterans utilize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system. While the VA healthcare network is regarded as one of the best in the country, with cutting-edge achievements, we can and must improve it. We also must simplify the bureaucracy so that every veteran in this country who is eligible for VA healthcare knows how to access the system.

The Post-9/11 GI Higher-Education Bill stands as one of many testaments of our willingness to honor our newest generation of veterans by investing not only in their future but our country’s future. It has been an extraordinary success. As a result of this legislation, about 920,000 veterans and family members are now receiving a higher education — at virtually no cost to them. Unfortunately, in a program as large as this, there have been some payment problems to higher education institutions that must be resolved as soon as possible.

We must also address the very serious disability claims backlog. While the VA is processing more claims than ever before, it is absolutely unacceptable that veterans, in some cases, are waiting years for their claims to be processed. For whatever reason, the VA did not until 2009, begin doing what the entire corporate sector had done — move from paper to the digital world. Upon assuming his position at the VA, Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a very ambitious transformation of the system. His goal is that by the end of 2015, all claims will be processed within 125 days and with 98 percent accuracy. I intend to work with the secretary to make sure that goal is achieved.

One of our great national embarrassments has been that thousands of American veterans have been homeless. The VA has an aggressive initiative to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, and has decreased the number of homeless veterans by 17 percent since 2009. My committee is considering legislation that will enhance the VA’s programs to ensure that no veteran in this country is sleeping on the street.

Another issue of enormous importance is the alarming rate of suicides among veterans. While much of the focus has been on younger veterans, it is also a very serious problem among older veterans who may be facing isolation and financial stress. The VA must be aggressive in reaching out to veterans at risk of suicide and my committee is working on approaches that we hope can address this issue.

Finally, the Department of Defense estimates that more than 1 million service members will transition out of the military in the next four years. At a time when our country continues to struggle with high unemployment, we must do everything that we can to make certain that these brave men and women can find meaningful employment and be reintegrated into the economy. There are several important pieces of legislation that we are considering that will do just that.

Memorial Day is about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is also about protecting and defending those, many of whom are in the twilight of their lives, who protected and defended us.