A Soldier's Promise: A New GI Bill of Rights
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A good military officer puts the interests of his troops ahead of his own. When I was an Army officer in the 82nd Airborne, this meant that the other officers and I ate only after we ensured that the men and women under our command were properly fed. It meant that I was charged with protecting their lives and well-being. And it meant that I would never let them down.
As a Congressman, I will continue that devotion to my brothers and sisters in uniform. The men and women of our armed services devote themselves to our great nation. That devotion compels them to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, to fight to protect it, and for some to lay down their lives in its name.
We dishonor the sacrifices of these great Americans when we fail to provide them with the resources they need and the opportunities they deserve. We have a responsibility to those who protect us, and it is a responsibility we must not neglect. That is why I propose a renewed commitment of resources and respect to our servicemembers, our veterans, and their families: a New G.I. Bill of Rights, a covenant that our nation will enter into with those brave men and women who volunteer to protect it.
I. THE MANPOWER NEEDED TO WIN
THE WAR ON TERROR
I have seen firsthand the consequences of going to war with inadequate resources and insufficient troops. I served in al-Rashid, Baghdad which, like Philadelphia, is home to 1.5 million people. But while there are 7,000 police officers in Philadelphia, a force of only 3,500 troops struggled to keep the peace in al-Rashid when I was there in 2003 and 2004. This is simply unacceptable.
Grow the Active Duty Force America faces unprecedented challenges around the world, and we must field enough troops to fight this new kind of war. We must expand our special forces, Marine expedition forces, and those units uniquely qualified to capture Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Strengthen the National Guard The war in Iraq has placed an untenable burden on our National Guard, leaving our nation vulnerable at home. I will not only fight efforts to scale back the National Guard, such as the proposal by Donald Rumsfeld to cut six of thirty-four brigades, but I will fight to provide the Guard with all the resources necessary to protect our homeland and respond to national disasters.
Provide Military Recruiters With Every Tool Available As someone who has recruited for the military, I know how difficult it is to recruit qualified men and women. In this tough recruiting climate, we must provide military recruiters with every available resource to encourage the best and the brightest to serve.
End the Backdoor Draft The military must keep its word. We must bring an end to "stop-loss" orders, which prevent volunteer soldiers from leaving the service even after they have fulfilled their obligations. This shortsighted program creates a "backdoor draft" that fosters distrust in the military and hurts recruitment.
II. PROPER EQUIPMENT TO COMPLETE THE MISSION
The current administration has nickel and dimed our troops every step of the way, while sparing no expense on no-bid contracts with companies like Halliburton. In Iraq, my troops and I rode in humvees without doors, leaving us exposed to the enemy and we counted ourselves lucky. Other units were far worse off: many were given second-rate body armor or no armor at all. A Pentagon study found that of fatalities before June 2005, over 300 could have been averted if those soldiers had been provided with the armor they needed. In the first two years of the war, more than one of every six deaths in Iraq resulted from our failure to equip our troops properly. This is unconscionable.
Provide Our Soldiers with the Best Equipment, Including Body Armor We have the best-trained fighting force in the world. These soldiers deserve to be armed with the best equipment from the moment they set foot in a combat zone. It is unacceptable to fail to purchase life-saving body armor for our soldiers, leaving their families burdened with the cost of providing it.
End No-Bid Contracts and Launch Investigations into Faulty Contracts Political connections should never come before our troops' safety or the American taxpayer. We need a competitive bidding process to ensure that the corporations responsible for equipping our troops put America's interests above their own.
III. FAIR PAY FOR OUR TROOPS
When I was in Baghdad, we learned that the Pentagon was trying to cut our combat pay. Public outcry prevented the implementation of this egregious policy, but even the current pay rate for our troops is nothing short of embarrassing. Base pay for an Army Private in 2006 is $15,282; that's less than 10% of the $165,200 a Congressman rakes in. Last year alone, Mike Fitzpatrick and the Republicans in Congress lined their own pockets with $3,100 in pay raises while they shortchanged our troops.
Increase Military Pay Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines hold some of the toughest jobs in the world. They deserve reasonable pay. No member of the Armed Forces should ever depend on food stamps or struggle to make ends meet on their military salary.
Increase Permanent Change-of-Station Allowances When servicemembers are forced to relocate for the military, they deserve an allowance sufficient to cover their moving expenses. The authorized mileage allowance has not changed since 1986, despite a 75% increase in inflation and a 300% increase in gas prices.
End the Patriot Penalty When our National Guard and Reserve members are called upon to defend our nation, they often forfeit their civilian pay for a much smaller military salary. We must end this discriminatory practice by working with employers to ensure that patriotic citizens are not penalized for their service. Federal grants and tax incentives for businesses that employ National Guard members would alleviate some of the difficult decisions that employers currently face.
IV. BETTER HEALTHCARE FOR OUR
FIGHTING MEN AND WOMEN
In my time as a hospital attorney at the Keller Army Community Hospital, I saw firsthand the challenges facing our military medical professionals. The doctors I met were diligent and hard-working, but were clearly stretched too thin when treating our veterans. Too many of our soldiers face dire medical challenges. Our fighting men and women deserve the best doctors, resources, and facilities this nation has to offer.
Make TRICARE the Best Healthcare in the World TRICARE has suffered from a lack of provider participation, in part because of the bureaucratic hurdles providers must clear in order to process claims. We must take action to reform TRICARE and foster greater provider participation.
Expand TRICARE for the National Guard and Reserves We must provide a cost-effective way for members of the Guard, Reserves, and their families to access TRICARE.
Stop the Increases in TRICARE Fees and Co-Pays The Pentagon and the Republican Congress increased TRICARE enrollment fees and pharmacy co-pays. This is wrong. We should never place increased healthcare costs on the backs of our troops.
Identify and Treat Those at Risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder According to the GAO, nearly 4 out of 5 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan identified as at-risk for PTSD were never referred for further help. We owe it to our veterans and returning soldiers to take care of their mental health.
V. PROTECT THE FUTURE OF
THOSE WHO PROTECT OURS
In my first days of basic at Fort Knox, KY, when I was asked if I wanted to enroll in the G.I. bill, I was told that I had just five days to decide. That was it. Many of my fellow soldiers were hesitant to spend $1,200 out of their first year's meager basic training salary to enroll.
The original G.I. Bill was created to help repay our debt to the Greatest Generation and to spur economic growth. We must reinvigorate the spirit of the original G.I. Bill by updating and improving the educational benefits we offer to those who have given so much.
End the $1,200 Buy-In Our soldiers' service has more than paid for the educational benefits offered under the G.I. Bill.
Improve Educational Benefits Current benefits have not kept pace with rising college tuition costs. Our troops deserve the education they were promised under the original G.I. Bill of Rights. We must expand educational assistance to those who enlist for four years of active duty or eight years of reserve service by covering the full cost of college tuition.
Improve Job Assistance Programs We must provide the necessary educational and training programs to allow veterans to leverage the skills they learned in the service to thrive in the new global economy.
Provide $5,000 Towards First Home In addition to the current VA home-loan guarantees, we should offer returning veterans up to $5,000 towards the down payment on their first home.
VI. HELP MILITARY FAMILIES
When one of my brothers in arms flew home from Iraq to see his newborn son, his journey took him from Baghdad to Kuwait to Washington, DC to Charlotte, and finally to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Outrageously, he was charged leave for part of the time it took him to travel home. Though he had put his life on the line for our safety, this indefensible policy cut into the already abbreviated time he had with his wife and firstborn. He and his family deserve better.
Protect Valuable Family Time Soldiers should not be penalized for being deployed far from home. They should not be charged leave when on R&R from a combat zone.
Grant Citizenship to Those Who Serve in Combat I had soldiers who asked on a regular basis for my help in getting them citizenship. One of my fallen brothers in Iraq was a non-citizen who was awarded his citizenship only posthumously. Any soldier who serves honorably or puts his or her life on the line for our freedom deserves the right to become an American citizen automatically.
Repeal the Military Families Tax We must immediately end the Military Families Tax, which penalizes the survivors of servicemembers killed as a result of combat who receive Survivor Benefit Plan annuities and benefits from the VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program. It is our moral duty to look out for the survivors of those killed in the line of service by repealing this law.
Encourage States to Offer In-State College Tuition to Spouses and Dependents We must encourage all states to offer in-state tuition for spouses and children of military members wherever they may be assigned.
VII. FULFILL OUR OBLIGATION TO OUR VETERANS
My friend Lance Corporal Paul Gannon scrambled jets for the Marine Corps during the 1960s. While performing his duties, he suffered severe hearing damage. He went to the VA to obtain a hearing aid last December and is still on a waiting list. This is not simply a question of quality of life, it is an absolute need that has been delayed unjustifiably. It is morally wrong to withhold or delay necessary aid or benefits from people who have risked their lives for our defense. Veterans have more than fulfilled their duty to America. It is time for us to fulfill our duties to them.
Guarantee Funding for the VA The Veterans Administration budget shortfalls in 2005 and 2006 exposed the critical need for a dedicated funding source for our veterans' health care. The health of our veterans should not be an afterthought contingent upon how much money is left over in the federal budget.
Allow Full Access to the VA Healthcare System for Priority 8 Vets The Bush administration has shut out more than a quarter million "Priority 8" veterans from the VA healthcare system, including 13,262 last year in Pennsylvania alone. We must end this shameful policy and restore full access to these American heroes.
Block Increases in Prescription Drug Co-Payment and Enrollment Fees for Veterans We fail to reward our veterans for their years of dedicated service when we saddle them with greater fees and co-payments.
Shorten the Waiting List for Vets Seeking Care The large number of veterans waiting for their first clinic appointment to be scheduled30,475 as of April 2006is an outrage. We must take immediate action to shorten this wait list and resolve the backlog in VA claims processing.
Fully and Immediately Repeal the Disabled Veterans Tax Current law still forces many disabled retirees who receive VA disability compensation to forfeit their retirement pay. We should allow full concurrent receipt of benefits for eligible military retirees. Our retirees should not be penalized for sustaining injuries while in the service of their country.