Lawmakers must keep faith with vets by doing more than making promises

Every American generation affirms anew our solemn obligation to care for veterans and their families, but our nation often struggles to go beyond giving thanks and make good on this promise. The simple, stark fact is that in action, as opposed to rhetoric, America is failing to keep faith with our veterans.

As ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I have sought to prioritize serving vital needs — ensuring that veterans have access to high-quality healthcare, skills training and job opportunities. Returning from seemingly ceaseless deployments, veterans deserve world-class treatment for both visible and invisible wounds of war and a smooth transition to civilian life. And veterans of past wars deserve and need commitments kept.

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Among the many challenges, the nation must address the tragedy of veteran suicide. We have taken important steps, such as passing the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which will encourage more mental health professionals to work for the VA. Yet despite some progress, on average, an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide daily, 17 of whom are not using VA healthcare. A multifaceted approach is necessary, including full integration of mental healthcare services into primary care. To that end, I recently introduced a bill that would extend peer support services — veterans helping veterans — into more primary care settings. Asking for help can be hard, especially for those who have spent their life helping others. So if you know a veteran who could benefit, join with them in visiting or calling a Vet Center to start the conversation.

In addition to ensuring access to services, we must do more to help our veterans transition to civilian life. Our servicemen and servicewomen learn invaluable skills in the military — skills that can fuel economic innovation and growth at home. To fully tap the potential of those skills, America’s business community must upgrade efforts to hire veterans. As one step in that process, this summer, I reintroduced the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act, which will -reauthorize tax credits to encourage the hiring of veterans in Connecticut and across the country.

Still, even as we increase opportunities for veterans, unscrupulous marketing companies, false nonprofits and for-profit degree mills are finding new ways to take advantage of our service members. Their scams seek to steal a veteran’s financial identity, push them into useless education programs or solicit support for sham charities that purport to either speak for or help veterans.

Too much of the $2 billion spent last year at for-profit colleges — with poor records of graduation and employment — was squandered and sacrificed. That is why I introduced bipartisan legislation to allow eligible veterans who have lost their post-9/11 GI Bill benefits — wasted at unscrupulous for-profit institutions that unexpectedly closed — to have this hard-earned opportunity reinstated for use at a reputable institution. This critical measure provides peace of mind to our veterans that they will not suffer the loss of educational opportunities they earned simply because a school closes, as we saw recently in the case of Corinthian Colleges.

Finally, we must make amends for the shameful way the government treated past veterans who suffered invisible injuries. Tens of thousands of veterans from the Vietnam era and prior conflicts were discharged with a “less than honorable” designation as a result of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress, designations that prohibit them to this day from accessing VA healthcare and support. I worked with former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to revise the rules and allow these veterans to petition to correct their records. However, too little outreach has been done to inform veterans of the availability of this change or of legal aid services that can assist these petitions. I encourage anyone reading this to ask a veteran if they know of someone with a “bad paper” discharge, and, if so, to let them know that help is available.

If there is one constant when it comes to Congress taking care of veterans, it’s that we’ve never matched our rhetoric with sufficient action. It took the personal intervention of George Washington to stop the continental army marching on Congress to collect promised retirement pay. Lines of Civil War veterans stretched around what is now the National Building Museum, waiting to receive pensions one at a time. And in the age of -PayPal, more than 50 veterans in Connecticut were recently told that the tuition assistance they receive for vocational rehabilitation to attend the University of New Haven was stopped without notice because of a computer glitch. We can and we must do better.

Blumenthal is Connecticut’s senior senator, serving since 2011. He is the ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and sits on the Armed Services; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the Judiciary committees.