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Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security

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Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS AFFAIRS AND HOMELAND SECURITY -- (House of Representatives - July 24, 2006)

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Mr. SALAZAR. I thank the gentlewoman and thank you for your commitment to our veterans in this great country.

Mr. Speaker, this country owes no greater debt of gratitude than it does to its veterans and military service personnel. Throughout the history of this great Nation, men and women have heard the call to service and have done so to defend freedom and democracy. I would like to take this time to personally express my gratitude to our veterans and our military men and women serving right now in places near and far around the globe.

When these brave men and women sign up for service in the military, our government makes certain promises to them, promises that are all too often forgotten or neglected later on. They are promised lifelong health care within the VA system, they are promised educational benefits, and they are promised that their spouses will be taken care of if they are killed in action or die from a service-connected cause. Mr. Speaker, I do not think that we are holding up our end of the bargain.

Let me just address a few of the failures that we have seen this year. Let me talk shortly about the budget shortfall.

This Congress, over the past year and a half, has been witness to monumental failures at the VA. First, we watched the VA come up short in its 2005 budget. We were told that the administration had not anticipated the number of claims from returning soldiers. A $1.5 billion budget shortfall is simply unacceptable.

I was happy when we passed emergency supplemental funding for our veterans which was not impaired. We cannot forget that part of the continuing cost of the war on terrorism is providing for our veterans. With that in mind, I offered an amendment to the Iraq war supplemental we passed earlier this year. In this bill, setting out billions of dollars for the ongoing cost of the war on terrorism, I asked for a mere $630 million to ensure that the VA did not fall short on its budget again this year. This amendment was ruled out of order during debate on the bill.

What is out of order, Mr. Speaker, is the short-sighted nature of the decision made by the majority and the administration. That $630 million seems like a small price to pay for mental health services, prosthetic research, and administrative support for those men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when the VA is still seeing more returning servicemembers than they anticipated.

Let me talk briefly about the second failure, that of theft. On May 3, a lap-top containing the personal information of 26.5 million veterans and 2.2 million active duty service personnel was stolen from the home of a VA employee. This sheds light on a severe problem within the VA. It took 19 days from the date of the theft for VA to notify Congress and the public.

I introduced H.R. 5588. This would allow for fraud alerts, credit freezes, credit monitoring, new notification requirements for VA, and it would require the VA to establish a new IT security protocol. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee marked up, just this last week, H.R. 5835, the Veterans Identity and Credit Security Act of 2006. It helps protect veterans by offering an assortment of credit protection tools, credit freezes, fraud alerts, monitoring, and it centralizes the VA IT security with a new Under Secretary position and new notification requirements.

Mr. Speaker, I would yield to the gentlewoman from Pennsylvania to talk a little bit about the budget shortfalls within the VA system.

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Mr. SALAZAR. Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentlewoman.

If the gentlewoman will continue to yield, today I would also like to address the issue of backlogs, and I would like to mention another troubling fact that we are facing with the VA backlogs. We have patients that are seeking medical attention and they are on waiting lists, and these waiting lists can take as long as 180 days to get through. Can't we do better than 180 days?

Mr. Speaker, I will tell you a story about a friend of mine, classmate of mine in high school, who served in the military at the same time as I did. He called me when I was a State representative Colorado and mentioned that he couldn't get in to see a VA doctor and that he was having massive chest pains. And it was shortly after that that we were finally able to get him into the VA hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And we were lucky because what the doctors told him was that if he had not gotten the immediate medical attention, he would have died within 5 days. They performed heart bypass surgery, five bypasses, the next day.

So it scares me that nearly 25 percent of the cases that are waiting have been pending over 180 days. I think this means that almost 100,000 veterans in this country have been waiting to find out how they can access the system. And I do not think that that even begins to account for the hundreds of thousands of vets waiting just to get in to see a doctor. Mr. Speaker, I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

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Mr. SALAZAR. I thank the gentlewoman, and that is correct. In my district alone, I have 75,000 veterans that we service.

When the VA actually made the original budget, they had figured that they would treat one out of every five veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan for mental disabilities. It now turns out that they are treating one out of every three.

So with that I would like the gentlewoman from Pennsylvania to talk a little bit about the mental health and the posttraumatic stress disorder that veterans have when they come back from such terrible wars.

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Mr. SALAZAR. Mr. Speaker, I would also like to talk a little bit about our GI Bill of Rights for the 21st century.

The promise that was made to our servicemen and women with respect to education, I think, should be kept. As it stands now, Reserve and National Guard soldiers are not eligible for the same educational benefits as active-duty personnel. This disparity of access is simply unacceptable. Currently, close to 50 percent of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are National Guardsmen and Reservists.

House Democrats are introducing the new GI Bill of Rights for the 20th Century to honor the bravery of our troops and the tremendous sacrifices that their families have made. The National Guard and Reserves have made extraordinary contributions, making up about 50 percent of the troops in Iraq.

The new GI Bill of Rights honors that contribution with provisions that protect their income, to help more than 40 percent of those call up who have suffered pay cuts to serve our country. We

have had stories of families that are struggling because they are not making the same amount of money since the spouse left and he is off fighting a war and taking a pay cut. Stories of soldiers losing their homes and families out on the street. I think this is totally unacceptable.

It also expands military health care to provide full access to TRICARE, the military health care program, to all members of the Guard and Reserve and their families for a low fee.

Finally, the package improves recruitment and retention incentives and bonuses for the reserves so that they are more equitable relative to those of the active-duty components.

Not only is this just and fair, I think it is necessary, given the recruiting and retention problems facing the Reserve and National Guard these days.

While I am proud to say that House Democrats have taken the lead on this issue, we will not be able to realize this reform without the support of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I look forward to working with all Members of this House, as well as our Nation's military and service organizations.

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Mr. SALAZAR. Mr. Speaker, I would like to just tell you a little story of someone who was my hero, and that was my father. He was a World War II staff sergeant who served during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

When he was 82 years old, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. As the disease progressed, he slowly started to forget things. But about the age of 84, one morning we were sitting around my mother's kitchen table there and we heard my father fumbling back in his bedroom, and he came out shortly after that and in his hand he had his World War II staff sergeant uniform. He told us, ``I want to be buried in this uniform.''

We are taught not to argue with Alzheimer's patients, so we said, ``Sure dad, no problem.'' But as the disease progressed even more and more, he started forgetting more things. But every now and then he would bring up the fact, ``Please, I want to be buried in my uniform.''

Anyway, at the age of 86 he suffered a massive heart attack. My mother called me and I rushed over to the house, and I remember that when I picked him up from the floor to put him on the gurney to take him to the hospital, with the very last ounce of strength that he had in his body he reached up around my neck and he told me that he loved me, and the very last word that my father ever said to me was ``uniform.''

We buried my father in his uniform. But to many veterans, the only thing that they have to hold on to is this great country, because they served with such pride and passion. So it is our duty as Members of Congress now to keep our promise to those veterans.

Mr. Speaker, in conclusion, I commend my colleagues for their work and dedication to preserving the benefits of our Nation's veterans. We must never forget the sacrifice that they have made in the defense of freedom.

On a personal note, I would like to express my most heartfelt gratitude to Congressman LANE EVANS, our distinguished ranking member on the Veterans Committee. Lane is a Marine who fought hard for veterans, and he has been a true inspiration and mentor to me in my first term here in Congress. I know that I will miss him, as many of us will, and I wish him the best of luck in retirement.

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Mr. SALAZAR. In the transportation committee, we have asked for an $18 million supplemental to construct an above-ground tunnel for the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. These are the folks that actually do the first responder training in many instances. You have seen the bombings of the subways in Europe, and you look at how vulnerable we are here in this country. And being able to construct that tunnel, we can train our first responders in such a way that we don't have to interrupt our subway services.

But I would like to talk a little bit also about something that is very near and dear to my heart when it comes to national security. I think that one of the most critical issues in national security is to make sure that this country never becomes dependent on another country to produce our food, as we have become dependent on other countries to produce our oil. So it really bothers me when, for example, in the ag committee we who are there to represent agriculture begin cutting programs that actually keep farmers and ranchers on the land, and farmers and ranchers who produce the greatest food supply in the world. And so I think that is critical. We must make sure that farmers and ranchers stay on the land and we have an adequate food supply.

You saw what happened when, during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein's troops had to give up because they didn't have enough food to eat. Let that never happen to our troops.

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