Mr. President, I rise today to urge my colleagues to join me in passing a critical bill that keeps the faith with the men and women of our reserve forces.
Representative Kline, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, led this effort in the House. I am leading it in the Senate. And it really affects troops from all over the country, a promise that was made to them that must be kept.
My home state of Minnesota, Mr. President, has no large active duty bases, but we have a long and proud tradition of military service in our National Guard and our Reserves. Throughout every military engagement since the Civil War, including the two wars we have fought over the past decade, Minnesota's National Guard members and reservists have served with courage and honor to defend our nation overseas.
In fact, it was a rag-tag group of workers and farmers who signed up for the precursor of the National Guard during the Civil War, went to the Battle of Gettysburg and had the highest percentage of causalities of any unit in the Civil War. And there is a big monument for them honoring the fact that they had that high rate of casualties and in fact held the line for troops to come home in, in the Civil War.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the importance of our brave citizen soldiers across the country and the unprecedented sacrifice that they have been called upon to make. The National Guard and Reserves were not built to serve as an active duty force for long periods but at times as many as 40% have been Guard and Reserves.
You know from Vermont, we have many National Guard that served our country. Last month about 3,000 members of Minnesota's National Guard First Brigade Combat Team, our Red Bulls, returned home from a year of service in Kuwait, assisting the drawdown in Iraq. Some of these men and women weren't serving for first, second, or third time. Some were serving for their fourth, fifth and sixth time.
The overseas deployments of Guard and Reserve units profoundly affected families and communities in Minnesota and across the nation. That's part of the reason we pushed so hard to bring those troops home from Iraq.
And that's also why in 2007, in recognition of the extraordinary sacrifices that our service members and their families have made, the Department of Defense created the Post Deployment Mobilization Respite Absence or PDMRA as it's called, program. The PDMRA program awards extra leave days to service members who deploy beyond the standard rotation cycle.
The motivation is simple. Troops who serve multiple deployments above and beyond the call of duty are basically being deployed as active duty, even though they're not, folks who have raised their hands and stepped forward time and time again to volunteer and support our country deserve leave time at home with their families as some compensation.
When they signed up to serve, Mr. President, there wasn't a waiting line. And when they come home to the United States of America and they need a job or they need health care or they need an education or they want some time with their families, they should have that.
You can imagine the concern the Red Bulls felt, and I felt too when we learned that all of a sudden the benefits our troops were promised under the program were being reduced as they were serving overseas. They were promised one thing when they left and the program changed when they were gone.
Here's what happened. Until last fall members of the reserve component who served more than one year out of six could be awarded up to four extra PDMRA leave days for each extra month of service. Then on September 30, 2011, the Defense Department changed the policy, reducing the four days down to one or two, depending on the location of service.
But here's the problem. Instead of grandfathering in the troops who had been promised the four days of leave under the old policy, the Defense Department implemented the change immediately, applying it to all troops on the ground.
I can understand having a new policy. I really can. But you don't do it to the troops who have already been promised one thing. That meant that in the middle of their deployment, 49,000 reservists deployed around the world who had been promised up to 4 days of leave for their service each month and who had earned their leave were told with little warning that the days that they were promised under the PDMRA program were going to be cut starting October 1, 2011.
As you can imagine, this was a real setback for our troops and for many reasons. First of all, it means that they would get less time at home with their families, who they haven't seen their kids, their spouses. Second, it means our troops and families are forced to cope with unexpected financial challenges as our leave benefits are cut without warning. Finally the change is met that reservists who unlike the active component don't necessarily have a job to come back to when they separate with duty, are faced with an increased and unexpected urgency to find employment.
Mr. President, our economy is on the mend. It's stable. But we are still seeing record numbers of unemployment among our veterans of the past two wars. Now is not the time to cut the leave benefits on people who have been promised the leave and push them out to find their own way.
When the men and women of the armed services signed up, they did it for the right way. They are patriotic, they put their lives on the line for our country. The least we can do is keep the promises that we made.
That's why my colleague in the House of Representatives, Congressman John Kline, himself, a decorated veteran, and I introduced legislation that makes a simple fix to this program. Our bill does not reverse the new policy change which the Department heads made after a careful review of the program. Our bill simply grandfathers troops deployed under the old policy so they receive the leave benefits they were promised.
Mr. President, I want to take a few moments to share just a few key points about this bill. First, it has bipartisan support in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives. In fact, it passed in the House on Tuesday night with the support of all Representatives. Second, the cost of this bill is fully offset. No new spending is created in this bill. And finally, this bill is now supported by Secretary Panetta himself. It is supported by the Department of Defense after they realized what the effect of this policy would have if troops were not grandfathered in.
Mr. President, this is a country that believes in patriotism and patriotism means wrapping our arms on those who have served and sacrificed for our country. I think all of my colleagues here today agree that nobody needs and deserves our support more than the men and women who have offered their lives in defense of our nation.
For ten years the men and women of our National Guard and Reserves have done their duty. Now I believe it's for us in Congress to do our own duty to make sure that our troops receive the benefits that theyare their due. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.