I'd like to welcome the newly elected National Commander of The American Legion, James E. Koutz.
I would also like to welcome the National President of The American Legion Auxiliary, Peggy Thomas. Thank you both for your advocacy for veterans and the enduring support of The American Legion's 2.5 million members.
Before we start, I would like to extend my complements to your Washington staff and to tell you, Commander, what a pleasure it is to work with them.
I would also like to take a moment to recognize those in the audience who traveled here from Maine. If there are any Legion members here from Maine today, would you please raise your hand?
These Committees are charged with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA's budget. And while this has been a busy and frustrating year in many regards, we must look forward to how we can best serve veterans in 2013.
To provide the best care and services, we need to understand how the veteran population is growing, changing and located geographically.
In 2011, we had just over 22 million veterans with 34 million dependents and we had 540,000 survivors of deceased veterans receiving compensation.
I was pleased to see that the VA's budget for 2013 reflected many of these changes. But they must do better outreach to eligible veterans and dependents to make sure they all get the services and compensation they have earned.
The VA 2013, overall budget is $140 billion, an increase from the 2012 request.
And because of the hard work of many individuals in this room, advance appropriations continue to help the VA with long-term planning.
With advance appropriations we ensure sufficient, timely and predictable funding for veterans' health care.
But advance appropriations only works when we work together to pass year-long appropriations bills. Short term continuing resolutions are not helpful for planning purposes and hurt the ability of the VA to provide health care services.
Although Congress may disagree on a lot of things, I hope we can always agree that providing strong appropriations for the VA is a non-partisan effort that must be done each year.
I was troubled by a July report from CBS news that found suicide rates among soldiers is up 80 percent.
Our veterans are returning from war with invisible wounds that need treatment but are discouraged from seeking this care for a variety of reasons. As a nation, we can do better -- we have to get this right.
To The American Legion, I ask for your help on this issue. As you lobby the Committee on Veterans Affairs, I hope you also lobby the Armed Services Committee for early intervention.
Care must begin when the person is on active duty. We must do more to help our veterans go on to live long and productive lives.
One of our efforts has been to make it easier for veterans to get credit for their military training.
Service members are experienced in many career fields that can be as varied:
* as electronics,
* mechanical and
* air traffic control.
These individuals have received first class training and experience, but unfortunately this top notch training rarely leads to a similar civilian career.
More must be done on the state and federal level to ensure that these skills translate into the civilian world.
If a service member can get credit for military training then each State will be better served by capturing this talent and increasing productivity.
With the American Legion's extensive network of state departments, your organization will be critical in working with us to move this issue forward at the state level.
On the federal level, we must also be looking at how we help service members transition back into civilian life. The Department of Defense and the Department of Labor must ensure that their employment and transition assistance programs are providing valuable and practical skills.
We must solve the disability claims problem at the VA. This has been an ongoing problem now for many, many years.
If the current system is not working, we need to be honest with ourselves, admit the failure, and look for new solutions.
If more money and more people have not solved the problem, we should look to other models to find improvements that could be beneficial for the VA.
And it is not enough to process claims faster. We need to have an equal focus on accuracy so our veterans get the correct benefits the first time around and so that the VA doesn't end up doing twice the work because of appeals.
We all must continue to work together to provide our veterans with the quality health care and benefits that they require, and that they have earned.
I thank you all for being here today, and Commander, I look forward to hearing the Views and Estimates of The American Legion.