Today we gather to celebrate and honor the great courage and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans. It is because of their sacrifice that we can safely enjoy the freedoms our great country offers. It is because of their unmatched commitment that America can remain a beacon for democracy and freedom throughout the world.
Today is a day of remembrance, but also a day for reflection. When our men and women in uniform sign up to serve our country, we agree to take care of them when they return home. This is a promise we must keep, and we must always ask ourselves: are we doing enough to care for our veterans?
Growing up, I saw firsthand the many ways that military service can affect both veterans and their families. My father served in World War II. He was among the first soldiers to land on Okinawa. He came home a disabled veteran and due to MS spent much of his life in a wheelchair.
Like many veterans of his generation, my father did not talk about his experiences during the war. In fact, we only really learned about them – including that he had received a Purple Heart - by reading his journals after he passed away. That experience offers a larger lesson about veterans in general. Many of our heroes are reluctant to call attention to their service, and to ask for help. That's why we've got to publicly recognize their sacrifices and contributions. It's up to us to make sure that they get the recognition they have earned and not just on Veterans Day, but every day.
Our veterans held up their end of the deal, now we must hold up ours.
That means modernizing our VA to serve both older generations of veterans who are aging into the VA as well as those returning from our current conflicts.
I have been impressed by our new VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki and his work to change the culture at the VA and break through bureaucracy, but there is still much work to be done to modernize the system to meet the unique circumstances facing our veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Without a traditional frontline, many service men and women are experiencing combat that is not recognized by the VA. This experience needs to be identified on their medical records so that they can receive the care and benefits they need and deserve.
And more must be done to face the growing population of women veterans. If trends continue, the number of women veterans who use the VA system will double in the next five years. Women veterans have unique needs that the VA is currently poorly prepared to handle. That’s why I introduced the Women Veterans Health Improvement Act earlier this year – a bill to assess, expand and improve health care services to our women veterans.
In addition to health care, we must also provide assistance to a staggering number of veterans finding themselves and their families on the street with nowhere to go. To fight this problem, I introduced a bill that would extend federal grant programs to help local organizations provide transitional housing, job training, counseling and child care. No veteran should be homeless as a result of the sacrifice they made for our freedoms.
The promise Abraham Lincoln made to America’s veterans 140 years ago -, “to care for the veteran who has borne the battle, his widow and his orphan,” rings as true today as it did then. We must do everything in our power to honor and care for veterans of wars past, and those returning home today. They deserve nothing less.