Honoring the ultimate sacrifice
The Daily Journal
By Congresswoman Jackie Speier
See the original piece here.
Memorial Day’s origin is traced to the wives of fallen Civil War soldiers who began the tradition of decorating their husband’s graves with flowers. Now, as then, we must recognize those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation as well as those who served and returned home to civilian life.
Unfortunately, too many of our veterans are falling through the cracks. The backlog of VA disability claims has grown from 448,000 last April to over 750,000 today. This is totally unacceptable. No one who risked their lives for our country should be forced to wait in line for their benefits. The Obama Administration must take aggressive steps to reduce this backlog and ensure VA care is delivered in a timely fashion.
We must also increase job opportunities for veterans — especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The unemployment rate last year for veterans of these wars was a disgraceful 21.1 percent. On June 7, I will be hosting a Job Hunters Boot Camp at the College of San Mateo with a special focus on the needs of our veterans. I invite them to join me and receive training on everything from resume writing to interview skills.
For our young veterans, one of the major challenges to finding employment is the emotional trauma of war. I have introduced the Veterans Mental Health Screening and Assessment Act which directs the Secretary of Defense to set up a program in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would have a three-month confidential mental health and traumatic brain injury screening conducted by a licensed medical professional. The stigma of an individual seeking mental health services will be masked by the fact that this screening is mandatory for everyone and that consultations are confidential. We need to reduce the staggering number of suicides — since 2001 more military personnel have taken their own lives than have been killed in combat in Afghanistan.
We must correct the injustices suffered by Filipino veterans. Some 250,000 Filipinos fought in defense of our freedom during World War II. They were legally American nationals and promised all the benefits afforded to those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. But in 1946, Congress stripped Filipinos of the benefits that had been promised to them. Filipinos went to battle, helped defeat the enemy, and then were told their sacrifices weren’t good enough. That’s why I have introduced legislation to make Filipino veterans, their spouses, and dependents fully eligible for benefits similar to those received by all U.S. veterans. Of the original 250,000 Filipino veterans, only 15,000 remain today. We need to act now.
In recent years, we have taken many important steps to help our veterans. We passed the single largest increase for veterans’ health care in the history of the VA. We took a dramatic step to make funding for veterans health care more timely by requiring Congress to appropriate funding for veterans’ health care one year in advance of the start of each fiscal year. And we enacted a new GI Bill of Rights for 21st century so post 9/11 veterans could attend college and achieve the American Dream. But there is much more to do.
We are in the midst of an important debate in this country about reducing the deficit, a goal I share. But I disagree with the key stakeholders who say “everything should be on the table.” We cannot and should not balance the budget on the backs of our veterans. Regardless of when they served, our nation’s veterans have made it possible for us to live in peace and security. We can never fully return the favor. But we can do everything in our power to ensure that our veterans have access to a job, education and training, and health care. That will likely require investing more in veterans, not less. Memorial Day is a stark reminder that caring for our veterans is a necessary cost of war and an obligation on which we can never default.
Jackie Speier represents San Mateo County and part of San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives.