Rep. Smith Highlights Veterans Issues, Human Rights in Vietnam in Address to the American Legion National Convention Congressman honored for his work for veterans
SALT LAKE CITY - U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs, today told thousands of delegates at the American Legion's national convention that a grateful nation must remain committed to meeting the needs of veterans, and called on them to help pressure the Vietnamese government to end human rights abuses as Congress prepares to take up legislation granting that nation favorable trade status.
"One way of saying thanks is to ensure that no veterannow or everis left behind," said Smith. "Whether it be full and predictable funding for VA healthcare, generous compensation for service connected injury or disease, a lifeline to our homeless vets, or cutting edge research for spinal cord injures - Congress has a sacred obligation to meet those needs."
Smith was one of the distinguished speakers who addressed the veterans and their families during today's session of the Legion's national convention in Salt Lake City. The delegates also heard from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld today, and President Bush is set to address the convention on Thursday.
During his speech, Smith pointed to several laws he wrote, including the "Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act of 2001" (Public Law 107-103) which greatly expanded the GI college benefit available for veterans. Smith's "Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act of 2001" is one of 13 laws he has authored to enhance the education, healthcare, and job-training programs and general well-being of our nation's 25 million military veterans.
"Before the law was enacted, a veteran with 3 years in the service got about $24,000 for college. Our law pushed that to more than $37,000a 50% increase. Higher education is now within reach of more of our veterans and service members and 33% more vets and service members are actually using the benefit than just five years ago," said Smith.
Smith's speech also focused on the Global War on Terror and human rights abuses in Vietnam, which he called on the Legion's delegates to help push to the forefront of the debate as Congress prepares to take up legislation granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Vietnam.
"My appeal to you today is to press the Bush Administration and Congress to demand, as a prerequisite to enhanced cooperation, that Vietnam cease its violent and ugly repression of its own peopleespecially the Montagnards and people of various religious faithsand press vigorously for a more thorough accounting of American MIAs. We can't squander this window of opportunity," said Smith, who serves as Chairman of the Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations Subcommittee.
Smith also commented on the promised release of a high profile democracy advocate in Vietnam - Dr. Pham Hong Son and other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience held in that country.
"It is encouraging that the government of Vietnam is finally responding to the concerns of the United States Congress and human rights advocates around the world," Smith said, who authored legislation highlighting Son's case and call for an immediate release of all political prisoners in Vietnam. "However, there is reason for skepticism given the ongoing harassment and surveillance of political prisoners released in the past. We will continue to carefully monitor the conduct of the government to ensure that it respects the rights of Dr. Pham Hong Son and other Vietnamese who are being persecuted."
At the conclusion of his remarks, Smith was recognized by the American Legion for his steadfast work for our nation's veterans.
"I am truly honored to receive this award from the American Legion," said Smith. "It is a privilege to work on behalf our nation's veterans who have sacrificed so much to defend America and freedom world-wide. I remain absolutely committed to protecting veteran's benefits and programs. For the brave men and women who have defended and continue to defend our freedom, nothing less will do."
From 2001 to 2004, Smith served as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, a panel responsible for the well-being of our nation's 25 million military veterans. As Chairman, Smith worked to improve the delivery of healthcare and benefits promised to our nation's veterans, and authored several new laws to significantly expand and enhance veterans' health care and benefits programs. During his tenure, healthcare spending for veterans increased by more than 40%, but he continued to argue for more funding saying that the money provided was not meeting the expanding need. Smith was proven right when emergency funding was rush through Congress to fill gaps in mid-2005.
Smith also wrote the nation's first law that addresses and combats the plague of chronic homelessness among veterans. The Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Act authorizes $1 billion in programs to help veterans find and retain jobs and provides them with housing, counseling, and medical care they need to rebuild their lives.