By Congresswoman Jackie Speier

I was recently alone in an elevator that was to take me up four floors to my district office in San Mateo. The elevator door opened and closed for a late arrival, an Iraq veteran who said he recognized me. During our 60-second journey he told me what I’ve seen and felt time and again from combat veterans. Anxiety.

I haven’t been in combat, but I’ve been shot by an assault weapon so I get the part about anxiety. A platoon sergeant put it to me this way. He once entered a room in the outskirts of Baghdad with dead bodies piled in the middle of the room. He counted 80 bodies…and they were children. He still has trouble entering rooms.

A corporal who contacted my office for help said he and his sergeant were in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq—they were whisked away by a medical helicopter. The corporal said he can still feel the drops of blood from the sergeant who was bleeding to death in a stretcher directly above him ….and that was five sleepless years ago.

And former Congressman Pete McCloskey, a double Purple Heath recipient, tells me he still sees the faces of the enemy on that hill in Korea and that was nearly 60 years ago.

This is a cost of war, unknown to most people in our country. Less than one percent of our nation is in the military and only seven percent are veterans. If more of us knew the cost of war, either first-hand or through a love one, we’d be less likely to send out troops into harm’s way, that’s my belief and McCloskey’s as well—and he’s one tough Marine veteran who bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer members of Congress have served in the military, about 21% in the current Congress which has eight fewer military veterans than it did four years ago.

Of the two million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost half face serious mental issues, according to the VA. Many veterans avoid seeking help—they fear the stigma attached to mental health treatment. And when they do seek compensation from the VA for service-connected injuries, they are subjected to an unjustified long wait for a claims decision by the Oakland VA which has the largest claims backlog in the nation.

Some veterans mired in the slow claims process have come to me for help. Since March of this year my office has helped Bay Area veterans receive over $1 million in VA benefits. But the number of veterans that we’ve helped is dwarfed by the number of California veterans who are still waiting—more than 66,000 have a backlogged claim at one of the three VA regional offices in the state.

The head of the VA said his goal is to eliminate 60% of the claims backlog by 2015. That simply isn’t good enough. We can’t leave 40% of the veterans behind. We can’t leave any veteran behind. Eliminating the backlog is not an item for unfinished government business, it is more akin to a national promise to all our veterans, regardless of whether or not they have a claim on hold. Making those who served us as whole as possible is a solemn responsibility that deserves greater recognition, not only today, but every day.