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Caring For Our Veterans: It's the Least We Can Do

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Location: New Jersey

Caring for our veterans: It's the least we can do
Sunday, November 11, 2007

By BILL PASCRELL, JR.
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD NEWS

Veterans Day is a time for Americans to come together and honor the millions of brave military men and women who have served our nation. They are the foundation of our freedom. Without their valiant service and sacrifice, America would not shine as the beacon of hope and opportunity that nations around the world aspire to become. Today is the day we must stand together to renew and reaffirm our commitment to America's 24 million veterans and their families.

In a year infamously marked by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal and a record number of military casualties in Iraq, it is more important than ever for Americans to share in the sacrifice of war and aggressively support the needs of our armed service members and veterans. I am pleased to report that ample support is on the way from Congress.

The inadequate service, horrific conditions, backlogs and lengthy wait times exposed at Walter Reed underscored a national disgrace. Congress immediately approved the Wounded Warriors Assistance Act in March of this year. Now the nearly 30,000 patriots who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan stand to experience a smoother and more dignified transition from the armed forces into the VA health care system. It is about time.

Beyond the 30,000 reported wounded, I am especially concerned about the thousands who will return home disabled without even being aware of their injuries. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) holds the dubious title as the "signature injury" for troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also known as the silent epidemic and is anticipated to affect hundreds of thousands before the wars end. In addition to those who will suffer from TBI, it is estimated that one in three soldiers will ultimately face the mental challenges associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As the founder and chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, I have worked closely with the military medical community to establish a comprehensive TBI program that would monitor troops from the moment they step foot on the battlefield until the time they return home. Lethal advances in weaponry and guerrilla tactics leave our soldiers more vulnerable to a higher caliber of powerful explosives. The blunt impact caused by the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) has the force to literally throttle the brain without causing abrasion or bleeding. Too often, such injuries go undiagnosed. Blast injury is a rapidly emerging infliction that we have just begun to truly invest in. Congress has already advanced $900 million to fight TBI and PTSD this year, and I am fighting with my task force for millions more.

Disability isn't the only barricade that stands between our troops and their transition back into civilian life. Too many veterans are struggling to return to the workforce. Student loans are scarce, and access to business loans is limited by rolls of bureaucratic red tape. Those who depend on combat pay for income are not even eligible to collect the earned income tax credits (EITC) that civilians are entitled to receive. This is all about to change.

Congress has launched the GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century Act to ease our veterans' transition into civilian life. This represents America's promise to invest in educational opportunity, mortgages and business loan assistance for America's youngest heroes. Just last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved a measure that I authored to modify our tax code in a way that would extend combat pay to military members for the purpose of computing their earned income credit.

Despite advancement of the single largest increase in the 77-year history of the Department of Veterans Affairs through Congress, many important components of our reform initiative are the target of a presidential veto. The president's veto threat, which would wipe out a congressionally approved 3.5 percent increase in military pay and the expansion of survivor benefits to widows and families, is beyond the pale. As a veteran of the U.S. Army, on this Veterans Day I ask the president to reconsider.

The extent of our progress on behalf of this nation's veterans and their families is dwarfed by their incredible service and sacrifice. Our debt of gratitude to them is immeasurable. On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no solider behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we will leave no veteran behind.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District of New Jersey.

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