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Smith Leads Charge For Vets Congressman Pushes To Improve Health Care

Location: Washington, DC

Smith Leads Charge For Vets Congressman Pushes To Improve Health Care

It's a mantra that U.S. Rep. Chris Smith has repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times during his fight to provide money for veterans: "You can't provide health care on the cheap."

He voiced it to veterans who asked for better medical services. He preached it to his fellow members of the House of Representatives when as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Af fairs, he wheedled, begged and ca joled for more money for veterans' services.

He even shouted it at House leaders who publicly chastised him for making noise, and yanked his coveted chairmanship for ignoring their warnings and continuing to press for more money.

And despite the recriminations he suffered at the hands of the GOP leaders, the Republican from Hamilton has continued to say it this month as revelations of squalid living conditions and substandard outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have roiled the military and forced the resignation of the center's commander.

"It all comes down to resources," Smith said in an interview last week about his years on the veterans committee and the changes he preached during his 26-year tenure in the house. "I have argued the point as diplomatically and passionately as I could. This is not a partisan issue, it's about caring for the men and women who have been injured and who have served honorably and who have service-related disabilities."

Though under the direction of the Department of Defense and not the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Walter Reed is a microcosm of a flawed system, Smith said. It is a system that sends men and women to war, but skimps on their upkeep when they return home physically battered or mentally broken; a system that does not honor the people who have sacrificed the most.

"Caring for veterans is the flip side of being pro-defense and of having a good, strong, viable military," he said. "The other side is you never cease in ensuring that no veteran is ever left behind."

The revelations that have rocked the Army hospital of soldiers who fell through the bureaucratic cracks and patients who languished for weeks are not new, Smith said, nor are they a surprise, as many lawmakers have sought to portray them.

Smith recalled a young New Jersey soldier who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2005 while serving in Iraq. Smith said the soldier received top-notch treatment at Walter Reed before he was transferred for care to a VA hospital in Richmond, Va. Smith called the care the soldier initially received in Virginia horrendous.

"We got on the phone with the VA and requested an inspection unit down there. They were ap palled at what they found," he said.

Since then, the care at the hospital has improved significantly, but Smith wonders how many other situations there are like it.

In a 2003 address during a hear ing on veterans health care, Smith cited a presidential task force that named inadequate funding as perhaps the biggest challenge to rais ing the bar.

As with most things governmental, adequate care comes down to money.

"Walter Reed should be the final straw," he said last week. "We can't do this on the cheap."

First named chairman of the veterans committee in 2001, Smith continually fought for more money, proclaiming veterans were being abandoned. He rankled the party leadership in 2003 when he won a fight to prevent cuts in veterans' funding. In 2004, he led a failed re volt among lawmakers to defeat the appropriations bill because it contained insufficient funding for veterans. By the start of 2005, he was out.

Smith was lambasted by the likes of Speaker of the House Den nis Hastert and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. He refused to back down to the leadership and his punishment was removal from the committee where he had served for his entire tenure in the House.

The congressman from Hamil ton was eventually vindicated when the VA requested $2.6 million in supplemental funding -- the exact amount Smith lobbied for that led to his dismissal.

Though no longer on the veterans committee, Smith still has fans in the numerous veterans organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars. When he was "fired" from his chairmanship, leaders of 10 influential veterans groups wrote Hastert to oppose Smith's replacement as committee chairman.

The letter signed by officers of the American Legion, Jewish War Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America and others labeled Smith's ouster a "tragedy" and called the congressman a credit to the Republican Party.

One man who signed the 2005 letter remains convinced that Smith should never have been replaced.

"There has never been and I don't believe there ever will be a better veterans champion than Chris Smith," said Bob Wallace, executive director of the VFW Washington office. "His dedication to the cause is second to no one. Chris's removal from the committee was a detriment to veterans and an embarrassment to the Republican Party."

Wallace said the fight that Smith led for veterans' health dol lars continues.

"We now have the Democrats in control and they have made a lot of promises, so we'll see," he said. "But there is nobody out there like Chris."

Smith is reluctant to point an accusing finger or even utter an "I told you so," but he won't hesitate to defend the actions that got him kicked off the committee.

He says accusations that he needed to tell veterans that "enough is enough" are ridiculous as are the allegations that he op posed the veterans budget even after the Department of Veterans Affairs had already signed off.

"The VA would be dispatched to defend a budget that was not even what they had asked for," he said. "It was not enough and we knew it."

Despite his unceremonious ouster from the committee, Smith still continues to fight for veterans and the work he completed while chairman continues to reap benefits. The 13 laws he authored on is sues such as homeless veterans and additions to the GI Bill of Rights are his legacy, but the congressman, now in his 14th term, said he is not done.

Smith has proposed a system of mandatory and predictable funding for the VA so the agency knows how much money to expect each year and funding is taken out of the political arena.

He also has advocated for a "seamless transition" from active duty service members to the VA. That transition is not happening so far, Smith said.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "If we don't fix this now, we will never fix it."

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