Mr. President, I rise today to pay tribute to our brave soldiers fighting overseas, in particular the nearly 3,000 members of the National Guard who recently had their stays extended in Iraq. And I wish to speak about our duty to these soldiers for their sacrifices on behalf of our nation. It is an issue that must transcend partisanship.
Whether you support the President's escalation or oppose it like I do, there's one thing that we can agree on...we must support the soldiers on the battlefield, and when they return home, we must give them all the support they need.
In the past four years, American military service personnel and their families have endured challenges and stressful conditions that are unprecedented in recent history, including unrelenting operational demands and recurring deployments in combat zones.
One-and-a-half million American service men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars are creating a new generation of veterans who need their country to stand with them.
Many of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing it not only to serve their country, but also to provide for their families. One of these soldiers was Army Sergeant William "B.J." Beardsley who lived in Minnesota.
Sergeant Beardsley joined the Army just after high school and completed one term of service. But when his wife, Stacy, encountered medical ailments, Sergeant Beardsley decided to re-enlist, in part so that his health insurance would cover the treatment that Stacy required.
His personal sacrifice to family and country allowed his wife to successfully undergo surgery. Tragically, the day Stacy left the hospital, Sergeant Beardsley was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
I have always believed that when we ask our young men and women to fight and to die for this nation, we make a promise that we will give them all the resources they need to do their job. And when they return home, we will take care of them and their families. Sergeant Beardsley will not be coming home, but for too many of his fellow soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who do return, our promise to take care of them has repeatedly been broken.
As a nation, we have an obligation Mr. President to wrap our arms around the people who serve us, who have sacrificed for us. Today, our veterans need us more than ever.
While the President pushes ahead with his 'surge' of additional American troops into Iraq's civil war, here at home we are already experiencing a vastly larger 'surge' of returning soldiers - many of them citizen-soldiers from the National Guard and Reserves.
More than three thousand have returned having made the ultimate sacrifice, leaving behind grieving families and communities.
Tens of thousands have come home physically wounded. Tens of thousands more return suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and substance abuse as a result of their service.
These are men and women who have served our country on the front lines. But, on returning home, too many have found themselves shunted to the end of the line - left waiting to get the health care they need, left waiting to receive the benefits they have earned, and, as the shocking revelations from Walter Reed show us, some have been left waiting in the most squalid of conditions.
We are now learning that it is not isolated incident. In Minnesota, one of those left waiting was Jonathan Schulze.
Jonathan - from Stewart, Minnesota - was a 25-year-old Marine who had fought in Iraq and earned two Purple Hearts. He told his parents that 16 men in his unit had died in two days of battle. When he returned home in 2005, the war did not leave him. He suffered flashbacks and panic attacks. He started drinking heavily to stave off nightmares.
According to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, Jonathan was seen by the VA 46 times in Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Minnesota. But this was not enough. In January, this young war veteran hanged himself.
And we now learn that the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud has just 15 acute in-patient psychiatric beds - while, a decade ago, there were 198 beds. That means the number of acute psychiatric beds available for veterans there has declined more than 90 percent in the past decade.
It's as if nobody even realized that we have been at war for the past four years, and that tens of thousands of Minnesotans have returned from combat - with many more to come.
Our veterans didn't stand in long waiting lines when they were called up or volunteered to serve our nation. So why are we asking them to stand in line now to get needed medical care?
As a former prosecutor, there's a saying that 'justice delayed is justice denied.' I would add that, for our veterans, 'health care delayed is health care denied.' And that, too, is an injustice.
We need to do better - much better. And we can. In fact, we know what needs to be done.
Federal Funding "First, we need to stop shortchanging our veterans during the budget process.
Just as this administration sent our soldiers into battle without a plan for victory, it also failed to develop a plan to address their needs once they returned home.
The administration shockingly underestimated the number of veterans who would require medical care. In its Fiscal Year 2005 budget request, the Department of Defense estimated that it would have to provide care for 23,500 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, more than four times the number required assistance. Last year, the Pentagon underestimated the number of veterans seeking care by 87,000.
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates the largest medical system in the nation. It has a reputation for high-quality care, with many talented, dedicated doctors, nurses and other staff.
But the VA's resources are now severely strained. The waiting lists and delays get longer. The shortages are especially severe in mental health care. Last year, the VA underestimated the number of new post-traumatic cases by five times.
For the past several years, this administration has submitted a budget request for the VA that significantly underfunded the needs of America's 25 million veterans. This is from the same administration that each year asks Congress to authorize tens of billions of dollars for projects in Iraq.
I was pleased that the Continuing Resolution passed a few weeks ago increased funding for the VA by 3.5 billion dollars over Fiscal Year 2006 levels. However, this should be only the beginning of a renewed commitment to our servicemen and women, both on the front lines and on the home front.
When the President's budget comes to this floor later this month, I will join my like-minded colleagues in pressing for a substantial increase in VA funding.
National Guard and Reserves Assistance
Second, we need to start treating our National Guard and Reserves like the soldiers they are.
Up to 40 percent of the troops fighting in Iraq have been National Guard members and Reservists.
Minnesotans know all too well the burden that is being placed on our Guard forces. The National Guard was not built to serve as an active duty force for prolonged periods of time. Yet that's exactly what we are requiring them to do. Guard funding and benefits have not gone up correspondingly to match its increased duties.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is stripping Guard units of their equipment in order to make up for shortages in supply. States rely on the presence of a strong and well-equipped Guard in order to respond to domestic emergencies. Department of Defense policies have weakened the Guard to the point that a recent commission found that 88 percent of Guard units in the United States cannot meet preparedness levels.
It is time we recognize the elevated position and importance of the National Guard to our national security.
As a member of the National Guard caucus, I support the National Guard Empowerment Act which will promote the commander of the National Guard to a four-star general and make him a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It will also grant the Guard more responsibility over coordinating federal and local agencies during emergencies.
We must also upgrade Guard members from their perceived status as 'second-class veterans' - in other areas including health care, pension plans, education and reintegration programs.
We need to do a better job of integrating our returning veterans back into our community when they return. This is particularly hard for National Guard members when don't have a base to go to and have to go to literally thousands of communities and small towns across this country.
In Minnesota, we are proud to have created the "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program which provides counseling and support to National Guard members and their families.
Across my state, right now, the National Guard is sponsoring a unique series of Family Reintegration Academies. Several weeks ago, I had the honor of attending one of these academies in Alexandria, Minnesota.
This pilot reintegration program has helped ease the transition for soldiers and their families, and it has gotten fabulous reviews from the participating families.
What works in Minnesota can work in every state across the nation. As we enter this appropriations process, I will be working with my colleagues to insist that the federal dudget include funding for reintegration programs for Guard members and Reservists.
Third, we need to improve the healthcare for all our soldiers.
The problems found at Walter Reed are all too common at veterans' hospitals and centers nationwide. I have joined my colleagues in legislation that will begin to solve the personnel and building shortages at Walter Reed hospital and similar centers across the nation. I also will join the Democratic leadership in the Senate in their HEROES Plan to provide more oversight to veterans' affairs and develop legislation to address these problems.
One of the most glaring needs in veterans' health care today is funding for research and treatment of polytraumatic injuries. As Bob Woodruff of ABC News showed us so vividly last week, with his own example and that of many wounded soldiers, brain trauma has become a signature injury of this war in Iraq.
Minnesota is home to one of the VA system's four 'polytrauma rehabilitation centers.' (The others are in Palo Alto, Richmond, and Tampa) These centers were created in recognition of the large number of service members sustaining multiple severe injuries as a result of explosions and blasts. These centers provide a full array of inpatient and outpatient services, with specialized programs for traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, blind rehabilitation and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I have visited the VA brain trauma center in Minneapolis. We need more of these centers, and more research into the permanent effects of brain trauma caused by explosions on the battlefield. But our current VA infrastructure is not equipped to deal with these injuries and to care for brain-injured vets once they leave these specialized centers and return home. This must be a priority.
Another issue that is only beginning to receive sufficient attention is the proliferation of mental health disorders among veterans. According to a Veterans' Health Administration report, roughly one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought care through the VA were diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse or other mental disorders.
The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, introduced by my colleagues from Iowa, will help ensure 24-hour access to mental health care for veterans deemed at risk for suicide. And it will create VA programs to help veterans cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses that too often lead them to take their own lives. Nearly one thousand veterans receiving care from the VA commit suicide each year.
It's too late for Jonathan Schulze. But it's not too late for the many other suffering soldiers who are at risk of suicide.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to engage my colleagues and cooperate on new legislation that will increase the funding and commitment to veterans' mental health services.
In years past, veterans like my father could count on the fact that their government would stand by them. After World War II, our government, Mr. President, did just that, adopting the GI Bill to provide health, housing and educational benefits that gave returning veterans the help they needed to heal, to raise families and to prosper.
At a time when we are spending billions on the reconstruction of Iraq, funding for health care for veterans is far below what's needed. Those are the wrong priorities for our country. We cannot abandon the brave soldiers who fought for us once they return.
At his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln reminded the American people that, in war, we must strive '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, Americans are again called to bind up our nation's wounds and to care for those who have borne the battle, as well as their families who have shouldered their own sacrifice.
Let us live up to this solemn obligation to bring our troops home safely and to honor our returning soldiers and their families by giving them the care and benefits they have earned.
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.