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The Debt We Owe Our Wounded

Location: Washington, DC

THE DEBT WE OWE OUR WOUNDED -- (Extensions of Remarks - October 11, 2004)



Mr. SCHIFF. Mr. Speaker, in his 1917 poem, Disabled, the British poet Wilfred Owen, whose haunting verse brought the horror of the First World War to millions throughout the English-speaking world, described the loneliness and emptiness of a soldier who had lost his leg in war.

Alone, in a wheelchair by a window, the soldier remembers all that he has lost and how the cheers that accompanied his departure for the front were not so loud upon his return-how recover from their wounds and begin a new life-often with prosthetic limbs.

Many of the troops who are treated at Walter Reed or Bethesda are discharged from the military shortly after leaving the hospital. As they continue their recovery most of these former soldiers will still require medical treatment, physical therapy, and counseling. Some will need care for the rest of their lives.

For many veterans, especially the severely wounded, navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a frustrating challenge in itself. Yet, even as the VA is taking on thousands of newly disabled veterans, the largest such group since Vietnam, three VA hospitals are slated for closure, while another eight will be partially closed.

The backlog of disability claims is growing and now exceeds 330,000, while the backlog of veterans claims pending before the Board of Veterans Appeals has nearly doubled in the last four years. Even though it now takes the VA about 160 days to process a claim-more than 5 months, the Administration wants to cut 500 claims processors in FY 2005.
I see no reason why, at a time when we should be adding to the VA's 162 medical facilities, we are shutting them down. In a survey released in March of last year by the American Legion, patients wait an average of seven months to see a primary care physician at VA facilities and more than half reported that they had an appointment postponed by the VA, with an average wait of an additional 2 ½ months.

When they finally receive care at VA facilities, some of our veterans receive substandard care. In April of this year, an ABC News aired investigation of two VA facilities in the Cleveland area, found dirty bathrooms, halls filled with dirty linens, unclean examination rooms, and memos discussing broken sterilization machines. Former patients spoke of insensitive staff who often ignored patient needs; one woman spoke of patients begging for food and water.

As bad as conditions were before, they are likely to be worse now as the influx of wounded from Iraq grows. In August alone, more than 1,100 U.S. troops were wounded.

The treatment of those wounded in battle is a good measure of a nation, and Congress, and the president must take corrective action now. I realize that fixing a problem of the magnitude of that facing our veterans cannot happen overnight, but we can begin now. The House should do is to pass immediately H.R. 5057, which will expand the Army's innovative Disabled Soldier Support System to all of the military services. The bill was introduced by my colleagues, Mr. Ruppersberger, Mr. Hoyer, and Mr. Jones, and enjoys support on both sides of the aisle. The DS3 program has helped more than 200 severely wounded soldiers to adjust to their new lives, but there are thousands more who need help.

We must also rely on the generosity of the American people to help wounded soldiers. Local communities, service clubs, religious congregations, schools and individuals can pitch in to help new veterans. Medical professionals, social workers, and therapists can volunteer to help until we can get the VA medical system into shape. Contractors can donate their services to remodel homes for soldiers who are paralyzed or have lost a limb. Automobile dealers can donate vehicles that are modified for the needs of their new owners. Students can volunteer their time to run errands, do laundry or just visit with these heroes, many of whom are only a few years older than they are.

Mr. Speaker, no American who has served this Nation in the armed services and been grievously wounded should ever be left to stare out a window and dream of a life that could have been. We are a stronger, prouder and more grateful nation than that.

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