This week we celebrate Veterans Day to honor the brave men and women who have nobly served our country. For those who have served, we thank you for protecting our freedoms and for those continuing to serve all over the world including Iraq and Afghanistan, we appreciate your service and dedication to defending and protecting our nation.
We owe a great deal to our veterans and it is our responsibility as a grateful nation to ensure that our troops are provided the support needed to carry out missions and that they are adequately provided for upon their return home.
During the 108th Congress, we have passed five substantial veterans bills which were signed into law by President Bush. These bills include expanded compensation and benefits for disabled veterans, better legal protections for service members on active duty, increased funding for health care programs, and improved benefits for spouses of military retirees.
Even with the difficult budgetary and economic constraints of the post-9/11 era, we have been able to make historic progress on behalf of America's 25 million veterans. In January, Congress provided $26.7 billion in funding for veterans medical care; a 12 percent increase from FY 2003. Overall, veterans funding rose $5.6 billion to total $63.3 billion in 2004.
As a result of increased funding, the number of veterans able to receive VA medical care services this year will top 5 million. This is an increase of 1.2 million more veterans receiving VA health care than four years ago. Two years ago over 300,000 veterans enrolled in VA health care were waiting on long-term lists for first time clinic visits or follow-up primary or specialty care. The additional funding allowed the VA to increase services and reduce that number by 98 percent in two years. Increased funding coupled with the diligent efforts of the VA to improve management of their health care system allows more veterans to receive timely health care benefits.
Recently legislation eliminating the "Widows' Tax" on surviving spouses of military retirees was signed into law. This amendment responds to the inequity experienced by a majority of military survivors, who faced a one third reduction in Survivor Benefits Plan annuities at age 62.
American veterans put the needs of their country before their very own and served for the good of fellow countrymen and women. We have made significant strides to better meet the needs of our veterans, but our work is not finished. On this Veterans Day, let us reflect and take a moment to thank the members of our armed services past and present. We are grateful for the sacrifices made by countless young Americans who have defended our nation on foreign soil and allowed us to enjoy the freedoms and liberties of our great country.