American Legion Conference
Thank you. It's an honor to be here today with all of you Legionnaires.
Over the last few months and throughout the campaign, I've been able to travel the state and meet veterans from all across Illinois. And no matter how many stories of heroism I hear, I constantly find myself in awe of your service and inspired by your sacrifice.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that "To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might."
In America, we must never forget how lucky we are to have so many men and women who believe - who are willing to put aside their own pursuit of happiness, to subordinate their own sense of survival, for something bigger - something greater.
When many of you joined the Armed Forces, you had your whole lives ahead of you - birthdays and weddings, holidays with family and friends, successes not yet achieved. And yet, you were willing to leave all of that behind - perhaps forever - because you believed that your service would make it possible for the rest of us to live happily, safely, and freely.
And so it's this sense of obligation - of responsibility to one's fellow American - that we must honor when our veterans return and need our care and support. Since I joined the Veterans Committee, I've heard a lot of debate over funding and budget numbers - about what we can afford and where we can save money. But I know those aren't the first things that come to your mind when you think about taking care of America's veterans. And they're not the first things that come to my mind either.
I think about my grandfather, who signed up for duty in World War II the day after Pearl Harbor. He marched across Europe in Patton's army, and when he came home, it was the education and opportunity offered by the GI Bill that allowed his family to build their own American Dream.
I think about stories like the one I heard from a veteran named Bill Allen, who told me that on a trip to Chicago, he actually saw homeless veterans fighting over access to the dumpsters.
And I think about people like Seamus Ahern, who I met during the campaign at a V.F.W. hall in East Moline. He told me about how he'd joined the Marines because he was so proud of this country, and he felt that as a young person in his early twenties he wanted to give something back. We became friends and we kept in touch over email while he was in Iraq. One day he sent me one that said "I'm sorry I haven't written more often - I've been a little busy over here." I had to tell him "Don't worry - I know you've got your hands full."
But as I listened to Seamus explain why he'd enlisted, the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child. And then I asked myself: When Seamus comes home, will we serve him as well as he served us?
That's the question we should be asking ourselves when we talk about veterans' benefits and the veterans' budget. And that's the standard we should meet.
And so I ask: are we serving our veterans as well as they've served us when we find out that veterans' health care has been shortchanged by at least one billion dollars? A shortfall that could have meant veterans turned away from doctor's visits, veterans unable to pay their medical bills, or veterans refused the prosthetics they need to live normal lives?
Thankfully, we restored the funding in Congress so that none of this would happen. But let me be clear - the Department of Veterans Affairs should never be funded as an afterthought. Republicans and Democrats warned the administration that there may be a shortfall months ago, and so we shouldn't have to be scraping for change now to care for those who risked their lives to defend ours. It should be America's first priority.
And yet, you've all seen how we keep falling short. How disabled veterans are waiting hundreds of days just to get their claim processed. How wounded veterans in Illinois receive fewer disability benefits than those in New Mexico or Maine. When I first arrived in the Senate, and saw the Chicago Sun-Times report that ranked Illinois 49th in how much disability pay our veterans received, we decided to hold town hall meetings here in Springfield and in Chicago to hear directly from you. Well you spoke, we relayed your concerns to VA Secretary Nicholson, he came out to see the problem for himself, and now we've increased our VA staff by 27% so there are more caseworkers for each veteran.
But the benefits are still too low and the waits are still too long, and so we've got a ways to go. It's not enough to simply wave a flag and welcome our veterans with words of praise - we need to get serious about solving these problems and honoring their service. We held a hearing in Chicago about these issues just the other week, and I heard from a veteran whose hands had been crushed in an accident. Twenty years later he's still caught in the VA bureaucracy, trying to obtain disability benefits. Twenty years later. Meanwhile, we just learned that the VA's latest solution on disability disparities is to stop ranking which states are the best and worst. I don't know about you, but I don't think that burying bad news is any way deal with it.
If this is the best we can do for veterans who've already come home, what will we do for the hundreds of thousands who will, God-willing, return from Iraq and Afghanistan? Veterans already have difficulty accessing VA care, and none of us want those who are still fighting to be greeted by a system that tells them "Thanks for fighting for your country - now take a number."
We know that soldiers are already coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we know that a recent Army study showed that one in six soldiers in Iraq reported symptoms of major depression. Some experts predict that more than 100,000 soldiers may need some kind of mental health treatment when they come home. For tens of thousands of others, the wounds they suffered in battle will need care that could last a lifetime. These brave men and women may not have survived earlier wars, but thanks to advances in technology, these young people not only have the chance to survive, but to live normal lives. But it's up to us to provide the resources to make that a reality.
It is not only our patriotic duty to provide this care, it is our moral duty at the most fundamental level - and we must rise to that challenge.
We've made some progress already. In Congress, with the help of the American Legion, I worked to ensure that our hospitalized soldiers don't get billed for their meals. And I've also sponsored the Sheltering All Veterans Everywhere Act, which would strengthen the VA programs our homeless vets need to get back on their feet. The American Legion has endorsed this bill, and so I hope we can work together on this and other initiatives in the future.
Over half a century ago, it was American Legion National Commander Harry Colmery who first sat down and wrote the legislation that would become the GI Bill of Rights - a bill that has since provided education and training for nearly 8 million Americans, housing for nearly 2 million families, and led to the creation of the great American middle-class. That was a bill that told our heroes "When you come home, we're here for you, because we're all in this together."
Today, we shouldn't be scraping to find the bare minimum in benefits and health care for our veterans. And with the largest deployment of troops since Vietnam fighting for freedom in an increasingly dangerous world, we should be talking about a GI Bill for the 21st Century.
When veterans look to Congress for help, this is the kind of legislation they
should hear about - not budget cuts and funding shortfalls.
It's time to reassess our priorities. We never hesitate to praise the service of our veterans and acknowledge the debt we owe them for their service, but now we must renew our commitment to them by increasing funding for the VA, and ensure that our veterans receive more than just words of praise, but also the health care and benefits they've earned.
George Washington once said: "the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."
Washington understood then what every veteran here knows now - that when we make the decision to send our troops to war, we also make the decision to care for them, to speak for them, and to think of them - always - when they come. Thank you and God Bless you.