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I recently read the New Times article, “The long, lonely road home,” (Feb. 19) by Aaron Glantz and heard Aaron talk about U.S. Army Specialist John Fish and other veterans at a lecture in Santa Barbara organized by the Walter Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. Aaron’s depiction of John Fish’s tragic death left me with a heavy heart. His story is devastating, and a painful reminder of the challenges our soldiers face when they return home from combat. Unfortunately his story has become all too common in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I know all Americans believe our veterans deserve our heartfelt thanks and support. Many people on the Central Coast remember that my late husband, Walter, worked tirelessly throughout his career to shed light on the plight many veterans faced when they returned home, particularly Vietnam veterans. Sadly, many were not thanked for their service; some even experienced derision for their role in that controversial war. Walter’s credo was “opposing the war, not the warrior” and his work created a space for healing for many in our community. In that spirit, supporting our veterans and their families has been one of my greatest privileges in Congress.
While most Americans today are appreciative of our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, for far too long the same couldn’t be said of their own government. Frequently, too little was done to fully meet our veterans’ physical and mental health needs, or to help them reestablish themselves in civilian life. The deplorable conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked the nation and the struggles many returning veterans faced in trying to obtain a college education, secure basic health-care needs, or simply readjust to civilian life were unworthy of their sacrifice.
Clearly, John Fish and his fellow soldiers—and their families—deserve more and I hope that it is clear the situation is changing, for the better.
For example, the Congress, then led by Republicans, held a lot of hearings on Walter Reed and forced the replacement of its leadership. We also worked together to finally begin increasing the Veterans Administration budget to try to meet the needs of veterans.
Since Democrats took control of the Congress, the positive changes have only accelerated. Last year we passed the GI Bill for the 21st Century, the greatest investment in veterans’ education benefits since World War II. This legislation, endorsed by groups ranging from the American Legion to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, fully restores four-year college scholarships for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
We also passed legislation to give troops adequate time at home to reduce the strain on them and their families when serving multiple tours of duty. Additionally, we passed the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, which requires the Veterans Administration to develop and carry out a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. Congress also increased appropriations for mental health screening and care to help with this effort.
Last month, President Obama enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (H.R.1). This legislation takes several steps to increase support for our troops returning from war. It provides $555 million for assistance to military homeowners, including wounded warriors and surviving spouses, hurt by the housing crisis. The bill also increases job opportunities by providing a tax credit to businesses for hiring veterans.
Additionally, deficiencies at aging military and VA hospitals are addressed with $1.3 billion for renovation projects. And $150 million is provided to increase the VA claims processing staff to address the backlog of claims. The recovery package also provides $100 million for warrior transition complexes to provide services to wounded warriors returning from combat and their families. As a mother and former school nurse, I’m also pleased $240 million was provided to expand child-care options for military families by building child development centers on military bases across the country. These facilities will help military spouses hold down jobs and provide job opportunities for caregivers.
As a supporter of women in the military, I believe our women veterans deserve specific care of their own. Last week, the Congressional Women’s Caucus joined the Secretary of the Army to discuss developing more female Army leaders, and to address the intolerable issue of sexual assault in the Armed Forces. We must continue to encourage young women to serve and ensure these dedicated soldiers work in an environment free from discrimination.
Moving forward we have to remain vigilant in our support for our soldiers, our veterans, and their families. Long after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, veterans of those wars will be dealing with the physical and mental effects of their service. We must provide them with the care they have earned through their sacrifice. They, and our nation’s honor, deserve no less.
Congresswoman Lois Capps represents the 23rd Congressional District of California. Send comments via the editor at email@example.com.