U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will deliver the following remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Arizona Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) State Convention on Saturday, June 12th in Mesa, Arizona:
"Thank you very much. Thank you, Joe Reagan, for the great job you're doing as our state commander, and Tom Tradewell, VFW National Commander, for your long devotion to ensuring America's veterans receive the care and respect they have earned from the country that owes them so much. And thank you to the VFW's Adjutant General and past National Commander, my old friend, Gunner Kent. Would all of our former Arizona State Commanders stand up and be recognized. Thank you, as well for your years of service to your fellow veterans. And thank all of you, for your invitation and the privilege of addressing you.
"I'm always grateful for the opportunity, and pleased to be in the company of Americans who have had the burden of serving our country in distant lands, and the honor of having proved your patriotism in difficult circumstances.
"I was born into a family who made their living at sea in defense of our security and ideals. My grandfather was a naval aviator; my father a submariner. And it was nearly pre-ordained that I would find a place in my family's profession, and that occupation would one day take me to war. Such was not the case for many of you. Your ambitions might not have led you to war. Most of you were citizen-soldiers. You answered the call when it came; took up arms for your country's sake; and fought to the limit of your ability because you believed America's security was as much your responsibility as it was the professional soldier's. And when you came home, you built a better a country than the one you inherited. It's a privilege to be in your company.
"The sacrifices made by veterans deserve to be memorialized in something more lasting than marble or bronze or in the fleeting effect of a politician's speeches. Your valor and devotion to duty have earned your country's abiding concern for your welfare. We haven't always served you as faithfully as you have served us. When our government forgets to honor our debts to you, it is a stain upon America's honor. As the greatest leaders in our history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, instructed us, care for Americans who have fought to defend us should always rank among our highest national priorities.
"I think it's fair to note the federal government has lately done a better job of meeting its commitments to veterans than has been the case in the past. The passage of the post 9/11 G.I Bill, and increased funding for the VA constitute welcome and overdue progress in discharging the nation's debt to you. And we have made some progress on the concurrent receipt issue, partially righting the wrong done to veterans whose disability compensation was deducted from their retirement pay. We have also improved the recognition and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and other mental illnesses; traumatic brain injuries; and diseases caused by exposure to Agent Orange. There have been other advances as well in the care and benefits owed veterans.
"But recognizing these improvements should not lesson our resolve to make the other necessary and overdue improvements in the treatment of our veterans. We have a long way to go yet before we can claim to have been generous to the men and women whose generosity to us was so much greater.
"The VA has a current backlog of over 1.1 million claims and appeals by veterans for compensation and benefits. And it takes an average of six months for veterans to receive a decision on their cases. Veterans who file a claim must wait six months on average for a decision, and two years for an appeal to be adjudicated. If the supplemental spending bill before Congress passes with the provision to award disability compensation as a result of the new Agent Orange presumptive decision, the VA will receive approximately 100,000 new claims within the first year after the rule becomes effective. So the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
"Even more disturbing is the error rate in processing claims and appeals. The Veterans Benefits Administration estimates seventeen percent of all cases are wrongly decided, and in some areas of the country the error rate is twice as high.
"No one anticipates the backlog will be substantially reduced in the short term. And as important as it is to decide claims more expeditiously, it is even more important that the VA decides them correctly.
"Although it will take considerable time to make the process work much faster and much more fairly, there are things we can and should do now to improve it. The VA has hired more case officers to process claims, and has promised to take other actions to expedite and improve the accuracy of claims adjustments. We also need to improve the training of case officers. We should reward those who perform their jobs exceptionally well, and hold those who don't meet our expectations accountable for their poor performance.
"We need to make better use of new information technology. It always surprises me -- although I don't know why because it so frequently acknowledged -- but the federal government always seems to be the last institution in the country to make use of the latest advances in technology. You know, it's not like Washington operates on a shoestring budget. We need to give veterans with cases and appeals pending accurate and frequent information about the progress of their cases. Too many veterans, after months and months of delay, and with few if any updates provided them, simply give up in frustration, and lose the compensation and care they earned. That's just not acceptable.
"We also need to improve our monitoring of every VA office to make certain their meeting their goals, and living up to the standards veterans have right to expect. Don't get me wrong, there are many fine and devoted people working in our VA offices, and they don't often receive the recognition they deserve. But their reputations are not well served by overlooking VA offices that are not meeting expectations and not taking necessary action to improve them.
"One of the most disheartening problems in America is the number of veterans who are homeless. Over 130,000 vets are or have been homeless. And Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have left the service are ending up on the streets much more quickly than veterans of previous wars.
"Some homeless veterans are suffering from untreated mental illness. But others some became homeless because they couldn't find work or experienced other financial problems.
"We can help get some veterans off the streets by improving their treatment for mental illness or other disabilities. But we must also make certain veterans who apply for federal and local housing assistance are always give priority consideration. And governments at all levels should do a better job of reaching out to veterans to encourage them to enter transitional and permanent housing programs.
"Of course, the best solution to homelessness for many veterans is a good and secure job. The percentage of veterans who are unemployed is higher than the very high national average. Over a million veterans can't find employment. That hurts our country as much as it hurts them because veterans bring so much talent and unique experience to so many occupations. And their character has been tested under the most awful conditions. I've sponsored legislation to expand the Troops to Teachers program because I think character is the most important quality any teacher brings to the classroom. We can't afford to lose the value veterans give to our society. And they don't deserve to lose their chance at happy, prosperous lives.
"Veterans in worker training and apprenticeship programs should get the same benefits in the new G.I. bill they would receive for other educational opportunities. It's even more important that disabled veterans receive benefits for vocational rehabilitation and employment programs that are no less generous than the educational benefits offered in Post 9/11 G.I. bill. We should do a better job of encouraging businesses to give hiring priority to veterans, and we should increase the tax credits businesses receive when they hire vets. And veterans deserve priority consideration in government programs that support small business formations.
" I wanted to mention one other issue that deserves the nation's attention. Because of the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy often prefers to attack remotely than suffer the certain defeat in battle, a great many veterans have suffered traumatic brain injury from IED explosions. TBI is one of our most difficult challenges in treatiment of our wounded warriors. Severe cases can cause lasting physical and mental damage, and require lifelong treatment. Moderate cases are often undiagnosed, but still have a very debilitating effect on their health and quality of life. We currently do not have an established treatment model for TBI. We need to adequately fund research into all potential treatments and improving the diagnosis of TBI.
"These are just some of the things we need to do to honor our commitments to veterans, and I promise you, for as long as I remain in office I am dedicated to making sure your needs are America's priorities. But before I go, I would like to give a few personal thoughts about Americans who have served their country in combat, and they place they deserve in our nation's memory.
"Today, Americans are fighting in faraway places most Americans will never see. They suffer as you once suffered. They are brave as you were once brave. They, like you, will never be the same again. And years from now, on some Memorial Day that many of us won't see, when their fellow Americans are celebrating the beginning of summer, and the comforts of life in a safe and successful country, they will bow their heads to mourn the sacrifices made to secure that future.
"It is every veteran's hope that should their children be called upon to answer a call to arms, the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen. But that is not their responsibility. It belongs to the government that called them. As it once was for you, their honor will be in their answer not their summons. Whatever we think about how and why we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are all humbled by and grateful for their example. We can only offer them in repayment the small and inadequate tribute of our humility and our commitment to do all we can do, in less trying and costly circumstances, to help keep this nation worthy of their sacrifice.
"Many of them have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many had their tours extended. Many returned to combat sooner than they had been led to expect. It was a sad and hard thing to ask so much more of Americans who have already given more than their fair share to the defense of our country. Few of them and their families will have received the news about additional and longer deployments without aiming a few appropriate complaints in the general direction of people like me, who helped make the decision to send them there. And then they shouldered a rifle or climbed in a cockpit and risked everything -- everything -- to accomplish their mission, to protect another people's freedom and our own country from harm.
"You know the world we live in is an uncertain one. It still holds dangers for us and for everyone for whom freedom is the habit of their heart. Man's inhumanity to man is an evil that will never be entirely extinct. And no matter how long a peace endures, it is always temporary. Americans will always be asked again to bear burdens that only the brave can endure. That burden will be their duty, as it once was yours.
"But it is a better world than our fathers inherited and their fathers before them; a world purchased at great and terrible cost by sacrifices on killing grounds that are now green fields and quiet beaches in peaceful corners of the world. We should be proud of what they did; proud and humble. Humble in the knowledge we enjoy our freedom because of the devotion of Americans who sacrificed everything to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- those Americans for whom duty, honor, their comrades and their country were dearer to them than life itself.
"When the time came for them to answer their country's call and fight on a field they did not know, they came. And on small islands, dense jungles and mountainsides, in the air and on and below the sea, they served well the country that sent them there. In the fog of hard battles, won and lost, they held high a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor.
"History does not remember all of them as individuals. We don't even know where they all rest. "But we must not forget what they did. Their honor is eternal and will live in our country for so long as she remains worthy of their sacrifice. They were family and friends to some, heroes to all -- who lived, fought and died for the safety and future of a great and good nation.
"God bless them and grant them perpetual peace."