Mr. President, fifty-three years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower named November 11th “Veterans Day”, setting aside that day to honor all Americans who have served our country so honorably in the military, both in war and in peace.
I want to take the opportunity this day of remembrance provides to say to all veterans and their families, thank you for your courage, your character, your strength, and the enduring power of your example. All Americans owe you our gratitude and appreciation for your commitment to and sacrifice for our nation.
Since our nation’s struggle for freedom more than two centuries ago, nearly 50 million men and women have served in the United States military and nearly 25 million of these veterans are alive today. Our thoughts and prayers also are with our veterans of tomorrow — the 1.4 million Americans serving in our Armed Forces, including the more than 189,000 servicemen and women who are in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the noble service and tremendous sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, the United States stands as a beacon of democracy, hope and opportunity to the rest of the world.
At this moment, as we send soldiers to fight overseas, our support for our service members must remain steadfast and strong. Our veterans have earned access to quality health care, affordable educational opportunities and a chance to thrive once home.
I am proud today to be a part of this Congress that has worked to honor our commitment to our nation’s veterans. In September, the Senate passed the Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill for 2008. The legislation provides nearly 65 billion dollars for the Veterans Administration. Specifically, the bill makes substantial new investments to improve and strengthen health care for our brave veterans, making critical investments in medical services, including: Treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; funding for new claims processors to address the backlog of pending disability claims, and the investment in VA repair and maintenance necessary to prevent another Walter Reed type situation. These investments address key shortcomings in our veterans’ health care system.
Although a minority in the Senate blocked our ability to send that legislation to the President’s desk last week, we voted this past Thursday to provide temporary funding at the level the Bush Administration requested. That amount is four billion dollars less than what we in Congress originally intended. We remain committed to ensuring the VA receives the full 65 billion necessary to provide veterans the care and services they have earned.
But just as important as the quality of care is access to care. My colleague Senator Barbara A. Mikulski and I have worked together to secure federal funding for two new VA community-based clinics in Maryland — one at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County and another at Fort Detrick in Frederick County. Not only will facilities like these help to reduce backlog and waiting times, they will allow more veterans to receive care close to home.
We know, however, that we can and must do more for our nation’s veterans, for those who have given so much to our country. In addition to giving our veterans the benefits they deserve, we must continue to honor their service and keep the memory of our fallen soldiers alive. In that spirit, I introduced bipartisan legislation to grant a federal charter to the Korean War Veterans Association, S. 1692, the only fraternal veterans’ organization in the Unites States devoted exclusively to veterans of the Korean War veterans. This bill unanimously passed the Senate, and I am hopeful it will soon pass the House. Should that happen, it will ensure that the nearly 1.2 million American veterans of the Korean War that they will receive the federal recognition they deserve for their dedication and sacrifice.
As elected leaders, we also have an obligation to act as good stewards for our military, exercising wise judgment for its use and providing the equipment, training and materiel necessary for its success. My colleagues and I have made a good faith effort to act as those stewards.
Just this past Thursday evening, Congress passed a spending bill that provides 460 billion dollars for the Department of Defense, which is 40 billion dollars above the Fiscal Year 2007 enacted level. Congress directed that money be spent on a pay raise and better medical care and benefits for our troops, but also on procuring new equipment for our National Guard, increasing troop strength and developing the armed forces and the tools necessary to engage in the very different types of conflicts we are confronted with in the world today.
In his second inaugural address, a portion of which is engraved on our Veterans Administration building, President Lincoln said:
Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
I see those words as a charge to us here in government, laying out the grave and important work we have left to do. But I think these words can serve as a guide to all of us, in every community, today and everyday, as we welcome and honor our returned and returning heroes and work toward a more perfect union.