Hearing of Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Benefits for Survivors: Is America Fulfilling Lincoln's Charge to Care for the Families of Those Killed in the Line of Duty?
OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. BARAK OBAMA, U.S. SENATOR FROM ILLINOIS
Senator Obama. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Members of this Committee. I simply want to thank the witnesses here
and their families for the enormous service that they have rendered to this country, the sacrifices that have been made.
I am new to this Committee, but one of the advantages, I think, of traveling in a large State like Illinois during the
course of the campaign is the opportunity to meet all the military families, members of the National Guard, Reserves, and
just get a sense of how significant their sacrifices are. In every small town all throughout Illinois, you will meet people who not only have volunteered, but families who are proud of the services that are rendered.
One of the concerns, I think, that I have had is that although we are very good at honoring our troops during the course of a war when they are in uniform, that oftentimes it seems as if once the spotlight is off of them, they are forgotten. I know that this Committee and the Members of this Committee share my commitment to make sure that that is not the case.
This particular issue of what are we doing for these families when their loved ones are gone is of critical importance. I expect that this Committee will not only use this testimony to inspire our words, but also hopefully inspire our deeds, because ultimately, it is not enough for us just to talk about honoring our troops. We are going to have to also make sure that we follow through on it and that is going to require a commitment of resources that so far has not been forthcoming.
So I congratulate those Members of the Senate who have taken it upon themselves to focus on this issue. I thank you
for helping us put a face to these issues and I am very much looking forward to your testimony.
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Senator Obama. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Thanks again to all of you for your testimony. We are very grateful for it.
Senator Graham's questions and observations were so cogent that I don't have that many left. [Laughter.]
Senator Obama. But I think what I would like to underscore and just confirm with all of you is that we really have two
issues here. One is the manner in which information is provided to surviving families. I think, as I was listening, I shared
Senator Graham's basic view that we have to have a corps of people who are full-time responsible for working with surviving
families on the benefits issue. It sounds like you have got some terrific active duty people who are doing their absolute
very best, but it is not their primary job, which means that their training is going to be limited. It means that their
availability is going to be sporadic and at any moment, they may end up being deployed overseas or in some other area that
does not allow them to interact with you.
So if I am correct about that, and it seems that people are nodding, it seems to me that Senator Graham's basic
recommendation that while we still have active duty personnel involved in the grieving process, it sounds that Jennifer and
Tiffany both felt that that was very helpful, just having people who knew your husbands and had worked with them and that
those people who were on active duty should participate in that process. But when it comes to just sorting through the
mechanics of putting your lives back together again, you have got to have somebody in there who knows all the information and can gather it for you in a timely, patient way, and also at your own pace, because part of the problem is that you should
not be in a situation--everybody is going to adjust differently to these things and there may just be weeks, I am assuming,
where the last thing you want to do is sit there and think about health care insurance.
So it seems to me that there is a second point that was raised by Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Moakler and Mrs. Carroll, as
well, and that is it appears that there is a lack of consistency in terms of the actual benefits that are available,
that different families in different situations seem to be getting different information about what is available to them,
whether they are technically killed in the line of duty, were they not, how is marriage or remarriage handled, and that
involves a whole host of technical questions. Like any large Government system, it can get complicated.
But it does seem to me that we have to be consistent and fair to all families whose spouses have offered themselves up
for service, and that some of the distinctions that we are making between these families or the status of those who have
fallen doesn't make sense. Is that an accurate assessment of some of the concerns that many of you have?
I would just suggest and urge that we examine that carefully and that we then try to level up and bring everybody
up to a certain standard and not try to pinch pennies on this. I recognize that we are in a budgetary constraint situation,
but it strikes me that the levels of benefits that we are offering to these families is not overly generous at the
moment. We can do better. I know there is a bipartisan commitment to do better. I am looking forward to being a part
of doing better.