Over the past decade, the men and women of our Armed Forces have been asked to fight two separate, difficult conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Faced with tremendous challenges, our troops have responded with great skill, courage, and honor. Since these wars began, more than two million U.S. troops have been deployed. Thousands of Minnesotans in uniform have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Minnesota's active duty servicemen and women, National Guard members, and Reservists have continued our state's proud tradition of military service to the nation.
I have always believed that when we ask our young men and women to fight in defense of our nation, we make a promise that we will give them the resources they need to do their jobs. We also promise to take care of them when they return home. As a nation, we have an obligation to support those who have sacrificed for us.
Care for Our Troops
When I arrived in the Senate in 2007, our nation had already been engaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years. Yet the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs were struggling to provide adequate services and benefits to meet the demands created by the new type of conflicts our troops had been fighting. Far too many service members were being sent into combat without adequate body armor or armored vehicles, and far too many were returning to face inadequate treatment for Traumatic Brain Injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - the signature injuries of these wars. As we saw with the investigations at Walter Reed Medical Center, many wounded warriors were being housed and treated in unacceptable conditions. And across the nation, far too many veterans faced severe bureaucratic hurdles in order to receive their pensions, disability benefits, or health services from VA medical facilities. Our service members and veterans deserved better and the situation demanded action.
Since 2007 we have taken unprecedented steps to improve care, support, and benefits for our troops, veterans, and their families. We upgraded the equipment for our troops in the field to help them safely carry out their missions. We provided record funding increases to strengthen military health care and improve veterans' health services under the VA. We passed the landmark Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides enhanced tuition and housing benefits to service members seeking to continue their education and smoothly transition into the civilian workforce. And we passed the pivotal Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which not only improves support and training for family caregivers - who often carry the largest burden of nursing our wounded warriors back to health - but also strengthens health programs for women and rural veterans.
National Guard Reserves
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also highlighted the importance of our brave citizen-soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves and the unprecedented sacrifices they have been called upon to make over the past decade. The National Guard and Reserves were not built to serve as an active duty force for prolonged periods, yet at times as many as 40 percent of American forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were Guard and Reserve troops. The repeated mobilizations and overseas deployments of Guard and Reserve units have profoundly affected families and communities in Minnesota and across the nation.
As a member of the National Guard Caucus, I have been steadfast in my support of the Minnesota National Guard members who continue to serve us bravely and honorably, both at home and abroad. I have also been committed to supporting their families who bear extraordinary burdens while their loved ones are deployed overseas. During my time in the Senate, I have worked to ensure equitable GI benefits for Guard members and Reservists. I've supported the largest increase in Army Guard Active Guard Reserve positions in 25 years and helped ensure billions of dollars to support upgrades of National Guard equipment and facilities. And I have fought to secure regular funding to extend and expand to the national level Minnesota's pioneering Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides community support to Guard members and their families throughout the deployment cycle.
Minnesotans know all too well the burden that is placed on our men and women in our Armed Forces. As a nation and as a state, we have an obligation to wrap our arms around those who serve and sacrifice for us. I am committed to continuing to ensure that we fully repay the sacrifices our veterans have made for all of us, in wars past and present.
As Minnesota's U.S. Senator, I will continue to focus on these priorities:
- Ensuring that our troops have the resources and support they need to do their jobs and remain safe. I traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan to see firsthand the actions of our brave Minnesotans in the field, and to meet with U.S. military commanders and diplomatic leaders. I was encouraged by the spirit of our soldiers and honored to meet with Minnesota troops in the field to thank them for their service and sacrifices on behalf of our nation. I came home with a commitment to give our troops stationed in combat zones the equipment and resources they need to successfully carry out their missions and to ensure they are treated with the respect they deserve when they return home. In the Senate, I have supported funding increases for better and safer equipment, including to provide our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with mine-resistant combat vehicles and individual troop body armor, and to address shortfalls in critical National Guard equipment.
- Eliminating the claims backlog to ensure Minnesota veterans receive the full benefits they have earned. The men and women who have served our nation often wait months or even years to receive the pension or disability benefits they are due for their service. We owe it to our veterans to cut through the claims backlog and the red tape and ensure they have all the support they need, both in the short- and long-term.
- Recognizing the unique challenges faced by our National Guard. Over the past decade, our citizen-soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves have increasingly been asked to serve in front-line combat positions side-by-side with active duty soldiers. Although we have made many improvements, many steps must still be taken to equalize conditions, equipment, and benefits between active duty troops and National Guard and Reserve troops.
- Supporting our military families. When we mobilize a soldier, we also mobilize his or her entire family. During deployments, military spouses have to keep food on the table and snow off the sidewalk, mow the lawn and do the laundry, and run the household on their own. While they are overseas, many Guard and Reserve members suffer a substantial drop in their household incomes, and their families often struggle to make ends meet. We must do more to support and sustain the families of our troops before, during, and after the deployment cycle.
- Expanding job opportunities for our veterans. The men and women who have served our country on the front lines should not return home and find there are no jobs waiting for them. We need to focus on building job opportunities for returning service members by improving training and hiring incentives to ensure that veterans transition smoothly into civilian employment. I also believe Guard and Reserve members and their families should not suffer as a result of their willingness to respond to emergencies, and employers should be rewarded for maintaining their commitment to these brave men and women who answer the call to duty.
- Fighting to end veteran homelessness. One national study found that approximately 16 percent of all homeless adults in America are veterans, even though veterans make up only 10 percent of the adult population. In Minnesota, studies show that on any given night more than 300 individuals who previously served in the military are homeless. These are men and women who proudly wore the uniform of our nation and, at the very least, they deserve a home. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki has committed to ending veteran homelessness by 2015, and I will continue to work with him to achieve this goal.
- Improving treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to a Veterans' Health Administration report, roughly one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought care through the VA have been diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse, or other mental health disorders. We must provide increased counseling services and create greater awareness for the tens of thousands of veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Expanding health care for veterans who have suffered traumatic injuries. Tens of thousands of veterans have returned from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with serious wounds. According to a study conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, over 50 percent of service members severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought hospital treatment were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries. We must increase the number of polytrauma treatment centers created in recognition of the large number of service members who have sustained multiple severe injuries - including head and spinal injuries - as a result of explosions and blasts on the battlefield.
- Strengthening support for survivors of military sexual assault. Reports of sexual assault in the military have been on the rise in recent years. According to the Department of Defense's own records more than 3,000 sexual assault cases were reported in 2011 throughout the military services but officials say the said the real figure could be as high as 19,000, as most cases are not reported. The Defense Department has found that about one in three military women has been sexually assaulted, a rate twice as high as that among civilians. This is unacceptable. Sexual assault not only harms the victim, but also weakens unit morale and readiness. We must take steps to ensure protection and justice for the men and women who risk their lives to defend our country
Since coming to the Senate, I have worked to make sure that veterans who have risked their lives for our freedom and security have the resources they need and deserve:
- Improving veterans' health care.Since 2007 I have joined my colleagues in providing record funding increases for military health care and to strengthen and improve veterans' health care programs and services under the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I have also worked to extend benefits to veterans with physical conditions that resulted from their military service, and I am a cosponsor of the Agent Orange Equity Act to ensure benefits for "blue water veterans" who became exposed to the dioxin Agent Orange during their service in the waterways around Vietnam.
- Modernizing veterans' educational benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which I cosponsored and which took effect on August 1, 2009, provides enhanced tuition benefits so that any veteran who serves at least three months on active duty will receive benefits to cover the costs of up to 36 months of higher education, depending on length of service. This critical legislation will help GI Bill benefits keep pace with the rising cost of college, while ensuring that Guard and Reserve members receive educational benefits comparable to those granted to active duty soldiers. I also authored the bipartisan Servicemember Student Loan Interest Relief Act to prevent interest from accruing on student loans during deployment and to help ensure service members are not set back financially as a result of their service to our nation.
- Expanding the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. This program, pioneered by the Minnesota National Guard, helps soldiers make the transition from military to civilian life through counseling and other services. Since 2007 we have been able to secure regular funding through Defense Appropriations bills to extend and expand this program in Minnesota. In addition, we passed legislation to create and fund a national Yellow Ribbon program based on Minnesota's groundbreaking initiative.
- Ensuring all service members and veterans get the benefits they have earned. In the summer of 2007, members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1/34th Brigade Combat Team returned home from Iraq after serving the longest continuous deployment of any unit in the Iraq war only to learn that, due to government red tape, many were not able to receive the full pay or educational benefits their service merited. We successfully cut through the red tape to deliver the full educational benefits these soldiers had earned. In 2012 nearly a thousand Minnesota National Guard troops learned their post-deployment leave benefits had been unexpectedly cut in the middle of their deployment to Kuwait. I worked closely with Rep. John Kline to pass a bill into law in May 2012 to restore the full leave benefits that these Minnesota soldiers - and 49,000 soldiers nationwide - had been promised. I've also cosponsored the National Guard Empowerment Act to help upgrade Guard members by creating a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard and Reserves as well as improving federal-state military coordination in domestic emergency response scenarios. Additionally, 31,000 service members have been discharged since 9/11 after being diagnosed with personality disorders, which denies them the right to Veterans Administration (VA) health care or benefits. In reality, many of those service members may were not properly diagnosed by a mental health expert and may be suffering from service-connected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In March of 2013 I worked with Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) to introduce the Service Member Mental Health Review Act, which helps these veterans who may have been discharged with improper mental health diagnoses get their records corrected and their benefits restored.
- Securing funding for equipment and infrastructure for our Minnesota National Guard. I worked with our Minnesota National Guard commanders and other members of our Minnesota congressional delegation to secure upgraded F-16 planes for the 148th Fighter Wing that is a central part of the Duluth community. With the support of the Minnesota National Guard and Duluth officials and businesses, I also successful worked to establish association of active duty airmen at the Duluth air base. I have also secured funding for the Minnesota National Guard's Joint Force headquarters and emergency operations center in Arden Hills, a field maintenance shop in Mankato, a storage facility for the Duluth Air Guard base, and a new training facility at Camp Ripley. Most recently, when the Air Force proposed eliminating the Air Reserve 934th Airlift Wing in Minneapolis, I led the effort to communicate the unit's unique capabilities and value to Air Force leadership, which resulted in a reversal of the Air Force's proposal in 2013.
- Strengthening care for military families. I have cosponsored the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act to improve support and training for family caregivers, who often carry the largest burden of nursing our wounded warriors back to health. I have also authored legislation to improve mental health services for military spouses and children.
- Helping improve programs for homeless veterans. I introduced the bipartisan Helping Our Homeless Veterans Act to improve programs for homeless veterans - particularly those living in rural areas - to make sure they receive housing and support services to help them get back on their feet. This legislation encourages partnership between the VA and community providers, building on local expertise to ensure that no veteran slips through the cracks. This important legislation was signed into law in August 2012.
- Helping veterans transition back to the civilian workforce. I helped pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act into law in November 2011 to promote the hiring of unemployed veterans by requiring separating service members to participate in career training programs and providing a tax credit to employers who bring unemployed veterans into their workforce. I also introduced the bipartisan Post-9/11 Veterans Job Training Act to allow veterans to use their GI Bill benefits for job training and apprenticeship programs to help them obtain the skills they need to succeed in the civilian workforce. This provision went into effect on October 1, 2011. I have also introduced the bipartisan Veterans-to-Paramedics Transition Act, which would help veterans earn professional certification and relieve the shortage of emergency medical personnel, particularly in rural areas, by streamlining civilian paramedic training for returning veterans who already have emergency medical experience from their military service. And I have supported legislation to accelerate commercial driver's licensing procedures for veterans who received driving experience in the military as well as legislation to provide a tax credit to military spouses to cover their re-credentialing costs when they must move to a new state for their spouse's military service.
- Strengthening support for victims of military sexual assault. Despite increasing awareness of the problem of sexual assault within our Armed Forces, the Department of Defense has no unified system in place to ensure storage of assault victims' medical and forensic records. That's why I authored the Support for Survivors Act to ensure life-long preservation of victims' records to ensure they are able to seek care and justice for the trauma they have experienced. All of the women senators of both parties are cosponsors of this bill and its major provisions were signed into law in December 2011. In 2012, I introduced the bipartisan Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act with then-Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to improve tracking and review of sexual assault claims in the military, and help ensure victims can get the justice they deserve. Key provisions from this bill that require retention of records, enhanced reporting on military sexual assault, and an established Defense Department policy against sexual harassment were incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which became law in January 2013. I have committed to continuing the fight against sexual assault in the military by reintroducing the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act in March 2013 with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), which requires the military services to elevate the rank of officer authorized to dispose of sexual assault charges, sets preferred policy for the disposition of sexual assault cases through courts martial, and requires the Secretary of Defense to retain restricted reports of sexual assault for at least 50 years in order to ensure veterans who have been victimized by these crimes will have the records they need to claim medical treatment and benefits.
- Findings and Recommendations Regarding DOD and VA Disability Systems
Government Accountability Office
- VA Health Care: Budget Formulation and Reporting on Budget Execution Need Improvement
Government Accountability Office
- Veterans’ Benefits: Issues for the 110th Congress
Congressional Research Service
- Veterans’ Health Care Issues
Congressional Research Service
- VA Student Financial Aid: Actions Needed to Reduce Overlap in Approval Activities
Congressional Research Service
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