By Peter Welch
As we mark Veterans Day here in Vermont, it is a good moment to reflect on the contributions made by those who are serving and have served our country. Last week I was honored to participate in the Hearts of Valor ceremony at the VA Hospital in White River Junction. Over 30 Vietnam veterans were presented volunteer-made quilts to honor their service some 40 years ago. It was a great privilege to look each of these veterans in the eye, shake their hand, and thank them for their service.
In remarks at this ceremony, I remembered a 23-year-old Vermonter who only the day before had been laid to rest in his hometown of Peru. U.S. Army First Lt. Sean Putnam, a Norwich graduate serving with the "White Falcons" of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, was killed in Georgia when he pulled over to assist a stranded motorist. In this noble act with tragic consequences, First Lt. Putnam reminds us that those in the Armed Forces are never really off-duty. In speaking with this young man's grieving mother, it was clear that First Lt. Putnam was fulfilling a lifelong dream to serve his country. During his all-too-brief time in the U.S. Army, First Lt. Putnam's fellow soldiers had become a second family. For those of us who have never served, this bond between soldiers is stronger than we can ever know.
The bond and commitment to service amongst soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines lasts far beyond their days in uniform. They continue to serve their fellow veterans, their communities, and their country. Walking in to the ceremony at the VA, I was touched to travel through two parallel lines of men and women holding American flags. These members of the Combat Veterans Association, Rolling Thunder, and the Patriot Guard had given their Sunday afternoon to honor their fellow veterans. Their patriotic display added an appropriate air of significance to this meaningful occasion.
America learned a painful lesson from the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Too many Vietnam veterans returned home to little if any fanfare. They returned to their families and communities and were expected to quickly assimilate back into normal civilian lives. All too often their uniforms were tucked away in a closet and their service was never acknowledged. In too many cases, these men and women were unfairly blamed for a war that wasn't of their making.
The Hearts of Valor ceremony provided an opportunity to begin to right this wrong, to finally acknowledge and thank these veterans. It is important, no matter what our convictions are regarding wars overseas such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we clearly distinguish those from our feelings about the service of those men and women deployed. It is my priority to ensure that this sentiment is born out in my work representing Vermont. That is why, when I was first elected to Congress, I was proud to vote in favor of a long overdue budget increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs -- the largest in its history. I also supported advanced appropriations for the VA Healthcare system, so that the VA system could be better insulated from the budget squabbles of Congress.
There is still more work to be done. For those applying for VA benefits, the claims process takes too long and is too cumbersome. We must ensure that those men and women who are now transitioning out of the military as well as those who served from previous generations have access to excellent employment opportunities. We must also continue to invest in the VA healthcare system. We are fortunate to have a great medical center in White River Junction and five excellent outpatient clinics throughout the state, and we must be ever-vigilant to ensure these facilities remain the best in the country. We must also continue to battle the scourge of homelessness amongst veterans. While great progress has been made in Vermont with the VA funding new shelters for veterans in Northfield, Winooski and Bradford, our work won't be done until no veterans are sleeping in the woods, their car, or on a friend's couch.
The Hearts of Valor ceremony was initiated and is organized by Wendy Decoff, Nancy Colburn and Cheryl Stancil, who go above and beyond their work at the VA Hospital in White River Junction to make this event happen. They have spent countless hours making arrangements, securing the quilts, and ensuring that the ceremony is as flawless as these veterans deserve. As we mark another Veterans Day, let us all learn from their example and pledge to do our own part to honor America's veterans in the coming year.