An obligation to wrap our arms around those who sacrifice for us AMY KLOBUCHAR Pioneer Press America has created a new generation of veterans during the past five years. More than 1.5 million military men and women, including 430,000 National Guard members, have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a nation, we have an obligation to wrap our arms around those who sacrifice for us. Our veterans need us today more than ever. They have served our country on the front lines. But on returning home, too many have been forced to wait at the end of the line. We must do much better, and we can. First, we need to stop shortchanging our veterans. Just as this administration sent our soldiers into battle without a plan for victory, it also failed to plan for their needs once they returned home. Officials shockingly underestimated the number of veterans who would require medical care. In 2005, the Pentagon estimated it would provide care for 23,500 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, it was more than four times that number. In 2006, they estimated there would be 2,900 new post-traumatic stress cases. Instead, there were almost 18,000. Even as it sought billions of dollars for projects in Iraq, the administration's budget requests significantly underfunded the needs of America's veterans. The next federal budget must properly account for these needs. Second, we should start treating our National Guard and Reserves like the soldiers they are. The Guard and Reserves account for up to 40 percent of the troops Advertisement Click Here! fighting in Iraq. Never designed for prolonged overseas duties, the Guard's funding and benefits have not kept pace with increased responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is stripping Guard units of their equipment to make up for shortages. A recent national commission found that 88 percent of Guard units cannot meet preparedness levels. Recognizing its elevated importance to our national security, there is pending legislation that would add the commander of the National Guard to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We should also end the Guard's perceived status as "second-class veterans" by providing enhanced health care, pension and education benefits, as well as family reintegration programs like Minnesota's innovative Beyond the Yellow Ribbon pilot project. Third, we need to improve health care for all of our soldiers. I have joined my colleagues in sponsoring legislation to solve the personnel and building shortages at Walter Reed and other hospitals across the nation. I also support the Senate's plan to ensure more oversight for veterans' health care. One of the most glaring needs is the treatment of multiple traumatic injuries, including brain trauma, caused by bomb blasts. Minnesota is the proud home to one of four "polytrauma rehabilitation centers" operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the VA's national infrastructure is not equipped to deal with these injuries and care for severely injured vets once they leave these specialized centers. This should be a priority. Veterans mental health care is plagued by waiting lists and staff shortages, even though one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking VA care show potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, substance abuse or other mental disorders. Nearly 1,000 veterans receiving care from the VA commit suicide each year. The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act would help ensure 24-hour access to mental health care for veterans deemed at risk for suicide. It is too late for Joshua, a young Iraq war veteran from Iowa who killed himself. But it is not too late for many other suffering soldiers. Near the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln summoned the American people "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Today we are again called to bind up our nation's wounds, bring our troops home safely and honor our returning soldiers and their families by giving them the care and benefits they deserve. Amy Klobuchar was elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota last November.