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. After World War II, our government adopted the GI Bill to provide health, housing, and educational benefits. Veterans like my father could count on their government to stand by them. Just as we did then, we have a responsibility now to ensure fair compensation policies, full education benefits, and the health care that our veterans and their families deserve.
In the past two decades, the men and women of our Armed Forces have been asked to fight two separate, difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Faced with tremendous challenges, they have responded with great skill, courage, and honor. More than two million U.S. service members have been deployed to serve in these wars, and they are now our fastest-growing veteran population, totaling nearly three million. In addition, Minnesota National Guard reserve and active duty military have been deployed to NATO countries in Europe, both before and during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as to bases across the world. Thousands of Minnesotans in uniform have served. Minnesota’s active-duty servicemen and women, National Guardmembers, and Reservists have continued our state’s proud tradition of military service to the nation.
Caring for Our Veterans and Service Members
When I arrived in the Senate, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA) were struggling to provide adequate services and benefits to meet the demands of both our returning service members and our existing veterans. Far too many returning service members faced inadequate treatment for traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder—the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Investigations at Walter Reed Medical Center revealed that 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 the benefits they earned. I saw in 2007 that immediate action needed to be taken on behalf of our service members and veterans, and since then I have worked with Senate colleagues to give these brave men and women the treatment, benefits, and respect they deserve. 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 provided enhanced tuition and housing benefits to service members seeking to continue their education and smoothly transition into the civilian workforce. We passed the pivotal Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which not only improved support and training for family caregivers—who often carry the largest burden of nursing our wounded warriors back to health—but also strengthened health programs for women and rural veterans. And we passed the PACT Act, which ensures the VA covers service members' health conditions resulting from toxic exposures during their service.
I oppose efforts to privatize the VA, and I will advocate for strong VA funding while ensuring that our veterans are getting the support and care they need and deserve. I will also continue working to ensure that VA employees are held accountable for mismanagement or mistreatment of veterans.
National Guard and Reserves
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased deployments to NATO nations and in the Middle East have 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 decades. 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. At the same time, our Guard and Reserves are providing much-needed help to Americans on everything from natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes to building and staffing mobile hospitals and testing and vaccination centers during pandemics to deploying to cities nationwide and to the U.S. Capitol to protect domestic security. 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 worked to pass 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. I have been committed to supporting their families, who bear extraordinary burdens while their loved ones are deployed overseas. I have worked to ensure equitable GI benefits for Guard members and Reservists and have supported the largest increase in Army Guard Active Guard Reserve positions in 25 years, providing billions of dollars to upgrade 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 the 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:
- Supporting Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve service members and their families. Our service members put their lives on the line for their fellow Americans by carrying out their missions where deployed, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that they can perform these duties as safely as possible with adequate equipment. Protecting the health and safety of active service members can prevent injuries that cause long-term illness and disabilities. We also need to better support National Guard members and Reservists who continue to serve us at home and abroad. This includes providing more support to their families.
- Ensuring that our service members have the resources and support they need to do their jobs and remain safe. I have met with our brave Minnesota troops stationed across the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and multiple NATO nations. I traveled to Poland to see firsthand the actions of our outstanding Minnesotans in the field defending our NATO Allies and ensuring Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the U.S. is committed to our efforts to protect Allied sovereign nations. I came home with a renewed commitment to support our service members as they support the Ukrainian people in their fight for democracy and sovereignty. In the Senate, I have supported funding to bolster Ukraine on a military, humanitarian, and economic basis.
- Recognizing the unique challenges faced by our National Guard and Reserves. Over the past few decades, 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 numerous improvements, many steps must still be taken to equalize conditions, equipment, and benefits between active duty troops and National Guard and Reserve troops. The National Guard is the most cost-effective and versatile component of our Armed Forces. We need to ensure that our National Guard has the equipment and training for the full range of international and domestic missions. I have supported legislation to require independent commissions to review Army and Air Force plans that cut National Guard forces. I will continue to fight for the resources the National Guard needs to continue its important role in our nation’s defense.
- 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.
- Strengthening support for survivors of military sexual assault. According to the Department of Defense’s own records, there were 8,942 reports of sexual assault in Fiscal Year 2022. 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.
- Supporting veterans health care. Our veterans and their families have sacrificed much for our country, and we need to ensure that we repay this service by providing quality health care that meets the unique needs of returning service members, especially those exposed to toxic burn pits and suffering from traumatic brain injuries and other serious wounds. We must provide better mental health care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, and targeted care for the needs of female veterans. We must improve the VA and cut red tape for medical claims. Finally, we must continue to support veterans and their families with housing, job training, and education.
- Improving and expanding veterans’ health care. In 2022, I joined with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass the Honoring our PACT Act. This landmark bill expands VA health care eligibility to nearly 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the VA’s list of service presumptions, covering veterans who served from Vietnam to the present. This means that veterans no longer have to jump through hoops to prove that their time in front of burn pits caused their illnesses. In past years I led and passed several bills to help veterans with burn pits, including the Toxic Exposure Training Act, which will improve the training of VA health care and benefits personnel so they can better treat veterans exposed to burn pits and accurately process their claims. This legislation, which I introduced with Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, was included in the Honoring Our PACT Act which became law in August 2022. The PACT Act also included the Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) Act, which I co-lead with Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Those provisions expanded the population of veterans who could receive eligibility for VA hospital care to include those who were exposed to toxic substances and radiation. I will continue to ensure veterans receive the timely and full health care that they have earned.
Since being elected to the Senate, 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. There are over 18 million American veterans and over 300,000 who call Minnesota home. It isn’t enough to provide these brave men and women with health care. They deserve timely access to the best health care that we can offer. In addition, tens of thousands of veterans have returned from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with serious wounds. Many service members severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan who 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. We must also improve the long-term and assisted-living services for veterans with traumatic brain injuries.
- Improving the VA’s service to veterans. I oppose efforts to privatize the VA. I will continue to fight to ensure that veterans are getting the support and health care they need and deserve, and that VA employees are held accountable.
- Eliminating the claims backlog to ensure that 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.
- Improving treatment of PTSD and other mental health disorders. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 11 to 20 out of every 100 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We must provide increased counseling services and create greater awareness for the tens of thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD, both those in recent conflicts as well as those in past conflicts, most notably the Vietnam War. I introduced the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Processing Claims Improvement Act, which will improve how the VA handles PTSD claims. This was included in the Senate-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024.
- Fighting to end veteran homelessness. Approximately 11 percent of all homeless adults in America are veterans. With just over 300 veterans in our state reported as being homeless at the end of summer 2023, I led the Minnesota congressional delegation in pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs on its efforts to help end veteran homelessness. These are men and women who proudly wore the uniform of our nation and, at the very least, they deserve a home.
- Expanding job and educational opportunities for our veterans. The men and women who have served our country should not return from war only to face another battle finding a job. We need to focus on building job opportunities for returning service members by making sure that the skills they developed during their service transfer to the private sector. We must also improve training and hiring incentives to ensure that veterans transition smoothly into civilian employment. I 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.
- Addressing the needs of female veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are nearly two million female veterans, which is the fastest-growing group of veterans. Women veterans face many challenges, including barriers to receiving health care and the benefits they have earned as well as recognition for their service to our country. They also face higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, mental health conditions, and high-risk pregnancies, and they are more likely to have experienced military sexual trauma. We must ensure that these women get the care and benefits they have earned, and that appropriate resources are provided to address the unique challenges facing female veterans.
As Minnesota’s U.S. senator, I’ve been fighting to ensure that veterans who have risked their lives for our freedom and security have the resources they need and deserve:
- Supporting Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve members and their families. I continue to advance legislation to protect active-duty service members and provide them and their families the full range of benefits they are owed.
- 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 which is a central part of the Duluth community. With the support of the Minnesota National Guard and Duluth officials and businesses, I successfully worked to establish an 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. In addition, 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. In 2020, I led the Minnesota delegation in sending a bipartisan letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, urging the Trump Administration to maintain the size of the C-130 fleet in light of potential fleet reductions. The 133rd Airlift Wing must be able to continue its critical C-130 mission, including supporting humanitarian and disaster relief missions, such as assisting in the coronavirus response, as well as deploying to support the active-duty military around the globe. In the Senate’s 2022 and 2023 defense bills, I ensured Minnesota would keep its C-130s and there would be funding for continual repairs. I have consistently advocated for and led Minnesota delegation efforts to champion the 133rd Airlift Wing to receive the newer, faster C-130J models, and in September 2023 the 133rd was selected to receive new C-130J aircraft.
- Ensuring that our National Guard and Reserves 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. I successfully cut through the red tape to deliver the full educational benefits these soldiers had earned.
Guard and Reserve members should not be treated differently based on what deployment designation is used to call them up for service. Until recently, a loophole in the law had meant that two reservists serving side by side could receive different benefits based on what law the Department of Defense used to deploy them. I knew this was wrong and needed to be fixed. Former Senator Al Franken and I introduced the National Guard 12304b Benefits Parity Act. The provisions of the bill related to education benefits for soldiers serving under the 12304b designation were signed into law in August of 2017. I continue to work with my colleagues to push for passage of legislation that would ensure that health, education, and retirement benefits are not denied to Reserve Component soldiers serving under the 12304b designation.
Another benefits problem occurred in 2012, when nearly a thousand Minnesota National Guard troops learned that their post-deployment leave benefits had been unexpectedly cut in the middle of their deployment to Kuwait. I worked closely with former Congressman John Kline on legislation to restore the full leave benefits that these Minnesota soldiers—and 49,000 soldiers nationwide—had been promised. The bill was signed into law in May 2012, and the problem was fixed.
- Cutting out-of-pocket costs for National Guard Members and Reservists. In Minnesota, 30 percent of all National Guard members travel more than 50 miles for training. Our service members shouldn’t be burdened with costly travel expenses simply for completing their required duty training each month. I have introduced legislation that will help reduce the cost of service and make a big difference for thousands of soldiers in the Minnesota National Guard by reducing the mileage that can be claimed on taxes from 100 to 50.
- Recognizing Combat Zone service. The United States has deployed service members to the Sinai Peninsula since 1982 to perform a peacekeeping function. While the Department of Defense designated the Sinai Peninsula a “Qualified Hazardous Duty Area” in 2015, the White House did not designate the Sinai Peninsula as a “Combat Zone.” As a result, troops deployed to the Sinai did not benefit from the same tax-free treatment as those deployed to designated combat zones. I was an original cosponsor of the Sinai Service Recognition Act, which was included in legislation signed into law in December 2017. Now service members deployed to the Sinai benefit from the same tax-free treatment as those deployed to designated combat zones.
- Expanding the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. Pioneered by the Minnesota National Guard, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon 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.
- Supporting children of the National Guard and Reserve. More than one million military-connected children face challenges associated with service, including frequent moves, parental deployments, and other issues related to parents in the service. I introduced legislation that became law in 2019 to ensure that children of our Guard members and Reservists are identified as students of military families in school records. This requirement, which already applied to children of active-duty service members, will help ensure that schools and teachers know which students have parents in the Guard and Reserves and help accommodate those needs.
- 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 as recently as 2010 had 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 lifelong preservation of victims’ records so that these individuals are able to seek care and justice for the trauma they have experienced. All of the women senators of both parties cosponsored this bill, and its major provisions were signed into law in December 2011. Then, in 2012, I introduced the bipartisan Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act with former Senator Olympia Snowe 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—those requiring 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 continued the fight against sexual assault in the military by reintroducing the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act in March 2013 with Senator Lisa Murkowski. With this legislation, the military services must elevate the rank of the officer authorized to dispose of sexual assault charges, set preferred policy for the disposition of sexual assault cases through courts martial, and require the Secretary of Defense to retain restricted reports of sexual assault for at least 50 years to ensure that veterans who have been victimized by these crimes will have the records they need to claim medical treatment and benefits. I also introduced a bill to require the Defense Department’s Inspector General to investigate allegations of retaliation against service members who report incidents of sexual assault. Both this bill and the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act of 2013 were included in the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law in December 2013. In September 2014, I introduced the National Guard and Reserve Access to Counsel Act to ensure that members of the National Guard and Reserve who are victims of sexual assault have access to Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) services if the assault had any connection to the victim’s military service. I worked with former Representative John Kline to pass this legislation in the FY2015 NDAA, which was signed into law in December 2014. In 2022, Congress passed legislation which would strip military commanders of convening authority for Special Trial Counsels to handle cases of sexual assault, which is critical in allowing fairness in a trial.
While major positive changes have been made to the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, there is still more to do. Along with many of my colleagues, I am continuing to work to improve how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault.
- Supporting military spouses. Due in part to frequent moves, spouses of service members face an unemployment rate of 22 percent, making them one of the highest unemployed demographics in the nation. I’m leading bipartisan legislation to develop a training program to help military spouses start, develop, and operate their own small businesses.
- Supporting veterans and their families. I continue to advance legislation to give veterans and their families quality health care and mental health care—especially for conditions resulting from military service—and assistance with medical claims. I am fighting to serve the health needs of female veterans and to support veterans and their families with housing, job training, and education.
- Improving and expanding veterans’ health care. I have consistently worked to modernize the G.I. Bill’s benefits for our troops and strengthen funding for veterans’ health care and mental health care. I have worked hard to improve the VA and opposed efforts to privatize it, which is why I advocated for and supported the VA Mission Act that was signed into law in 2018. This law, which replaced the Veterans Choice Program, improves the way veterans receive care, expands benefits for caregivers of injured veterans, and addresses workforce shortages in underserved areas. The law also expands care, including for mental health, at the VA facilities with the most need and maintains the current system of private care for veterans who cannot schedule a doctor’s appointment within 30 days or do not live within 40 miles of a facility. I also supported the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 that was signed into law in January 2021 and includes provisions to improve services for female veterans, help Native American veterans access VA care, and expand resources for veterans experiencing homelessness.
I fought to include provisions in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the Defense Department and the VA to report on steps they are taking to reduce the excessively long backlog of disability evaluations. I also supported the bipartisan Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act (VACAA), which increases funding available for the VA to hire medical professionals and expands flexibility for veterans to seek care at non-VA facilities. I will continue to work to improve the implementation of VACAA and push for changes like those in the Caring for Our Veterans Act to ensure that the VA works for Minnesota veterans. That includes holding the VA and contractors accountable for the services they provide to veterans. In addition, I cosponsored the Veterans Appeals Assistance and Improvement Act, bipartisan legislation that would improve and expand pro bono legal services for veterans during their appeals process.
I introduced legislation with former Representative John Kline to protect veterans from erroneous and untimely VA billing practices after a number of Minnesota veterans who received treatment at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center received bills up to five years late. Another way to improve access to health care for our veterans is to ensure that VA medical facilities can recruit qualified mental health professionals, doctors, dentists, and nurses. That’s why I introduced the Veterans Access to Care Act, bipartisan legislation that would designate VA medical facilities and state veterans’ homes as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), which would allow the VA to be more competitive in the recruitment of health care service providers.
We also have to make it easier for veterans to make appointments with their doctors. A June 2014 internal audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that more than 120,000 veterans waited at least 90 days for appointments for health care or never received appointments at all. Excessive wait times can put veterans’ lives at risk, but technology that makes it easier to schedule appointments already exists and is being used in the private sector. In response, I introduced the bipartisan Faster Care for Veterans Act that created a VA pilot program to schedule veterans’ medical appointments online without unnecessary red tape and delays. The bill was signed into law in 2016.
- Addressing the unique medical challenges of burn pits. With an increasing number of our returning service members citing illnesses potentially caused by burn pit exposure, it is clear that greater attention is needed to get our veterans the care they need. In 2016 I introduced the bipartisan Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act with Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina to create a VA Center of Excellence to focus on the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits. That bill was signed into law in September 2018. I also introduced legislation with Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska requiring that members of the Armed Forces be evaluated for exposure to toxic airborne chemicals during routine health exams and directing the Secretary of Defense to record whether service members were based or stationed near an open burn pit. The bill became law in December 2019. In addition, because service members exposed to burn pits suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses and rare lung disorders, they are particularly at risk of experiencing serious or potentially life-threatening symptoms during the coronavirus pandemic. I introduced legislation with Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure that veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances receive the care that they need during the pandemic. The bill became law in January 2021.
In 2022, I joined with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass the Honoring our PACT Act. This landmark bill will expand VA health care eligibility to nearly 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the VA’s list of service presumptions. This means that veterans no longer need to prove that their time in front of burn pits caused their illnesses. The legislation included my bill with Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the Toxic Exposure Training Act. The Toxic Exposure Training Act requires the VA to provide training to its health care and benefits personnel regarding veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances, including reviewing claims processing.
- Protecting “Blue Water Veterans.” Agent Orange is another dangerous toxin affecting the health of veterans. I cosponsored and advocated for 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, as well as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act that became law in June 2019 to extend disability compensation to these brave veterans. I also cosponsored legislation that would provide critical benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange by establishing a presumption of service connection for veterans suffering from Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. The bill was signed into law in January 2021.
- Helping our Vietnam veterans by expanding eligibility for exposure to Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, more than two million members of the military to Agent Orange. These veterans faced a lifetime of health challenges because of the exposure, and it took far too long for them to get the benefits they needed. In 2022, I joined with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass the Honoring our PACT Act. This landmark bill expands VA health care eligibility to nearly 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances, including Agent Orange. It adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the VA’s list of service presumptions, covering veterans who served from Vietnam to the present.
- Improving the VA’s service to veterans. To bring more accountability to the VA, I cosponsored the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act. This bipartisan legislation ensured that veterans are better served by allowing the VA to replace senior officials found responsible for mismanagement and mistreatment of veterans. A version of this legislation was included in legislation signed into law in August 2014. This law also improved oversight of the VA’s health care system, increased available resources to hire more medical staff, and provided increased flexibility for veterans to seek care outside the VA system. I also supported the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was signed into law in June 2017. This legislation gives the VA the authority to remove certain employees or senior executives for reasons of misconduct while protecting whistleblowers. At the same time, in Minnesota, I pressed the VA Inspector General’s office to ensure that all allegations of improper practices at Minnesota VA facilities are fully investigated.
I am a strong supporter of the Veterans Debt Fairness Act, which would protect veterans from financial hardship caused by VA overpayments and recoupments. In 2016 and 2017, over 490,000 overpayment notices were issued to veterans. Oftentimes the VA recoups the funds by withholding some or all of a veteran’s monthly disability benefit. The Veterans Debt Fairness Act would improve the VA’s process by only allowing the VA to collect debts that occur as a result of an error or fraud on the part of a veteran, prohibits the VA from deducting more than 25 percent from a veteran’s monthly payment, prevents the VA from collecting debts incurred more than five years prior, and requires that the VA provide veterans with a way to update their dependency information on their own.
- Eliminating the claims backlog to ensure that Minnesota veterans receive the full benefits they have earned. We owe it to our veterans to cut through the claims backlog and red tape and ensure that they have all the support they need, in both the short- and long-term. I introduced the Veterans Legal Support Act with Senators Shaheen and Warner to provide funding to law school legal clinics offering pro bono legal services to veterans to help assist veterans with disability claims, foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorce, child custody, and some minor criminal cases.
Helping improve programs for homeless veterans. In 2012, I introduced and passed into law 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 partnerships between the VA and community providers, building on local expertise to ensure that no veteran slips through the cracks.
- Improving treatment of PTSD and other mental health disorders. Since 9/11, tens of thousands of service members have been discharged 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 not have been 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 of Montana to introduce the Servicemember Mental Health Review Act, which helps veterans who may have been discharged with improper mental health diagnoses get their records corrected and their benefits restored. I also included an amendment in the FY2014 NDAA to require the Government Accountability Office to assess the Department of Defense’s compliance with its own regulations for discharging service members for mental health reasons, and I supported the successful effort to repeal the cut to military retiree pensions that was made in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.
To help respond to the crisis of suicides among veterans, I joined with the late Senator John McCain and former Congressman and now Minnesota Governor Tim Walz as one of the original cosponsors of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which passed the Senate and was signed into law in February 2015. This legislation helps expand access to mental health services for veterans by establishing a loan repayment program to help the VA recruit more psychiatric specialists, enhancing resources for veterans transitioning to civilian life, and improving the VA’s ability to address traumatic brain injuries. I also introduced the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Processing Claims Improvement Act, which will improve how the VA handles PTSD claims. This was included in the Senate-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024.
- Helping veterans transition back to the civilian workforce. Thousands of the brave men and women who serve in our military receive excellent training that is highly valued in the civilian workforce. I helped pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act into law in November 2011. This legislation promotes 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 in October 2011.
Many who serve in our military receive emergency medical training as part of their duties. These service members return home with valuable skills and the need for good jobs. In order to help address veterans’ unemployment and reduce the shortage of much-needed emergency medical personnel in rural communities, I introduced the bipartisan Veterans to Paramedics Transition Act, which became law in August 2016. This legislation will help veterans earn professional certification by streamlining civilian paramedic training for returning veterans who already have emergency medical experience from their military service. I have also 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. In addition, I introduced legislation that was signed into law in June 2017 to encourage law enforcement agencies to hire veterans. The American Law Enforcement Heroes Act prioritizes the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant applications of state and local law enforcement agencies that use that funding to hire veterans. I also introduced the bipartisan Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to encourage veterans and military spouses to pursue careers in STEM fields. Our legislation was signed into law in February 2020.
- Modernizing veterans’ educational benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which I cosponsored and which took effect in August 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 was an original cosponsor of the Forever GI Bill that was signed into law in August of 2017. That bill ended time limits on the use of veteran educational benefits. 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 that service members are not set back financially as a result of their service to our nation.
- Addressing the needs of female veterans. I introduced the Newborn Care Improvement Act, bipartisan legislation to increase the number of days that veterans who give birth may receive health insurance for their newborns. Previously, a veteran had to find outside health care for their child within seven days of birth or the baby would not have health insurance. A provision based on this legislation that became law in January 2021 allows patients who receive a doctor’s permission to receive care beyond seven days. I cosponsored the Deborah Sampson Act, comprehensive legislation that addresses the gender-specific challenges female veterans face. The legislation ensures that the VA is providing the resources necessary to help eliminate barriers women encounter when accessing the care and services they have earned. The bill was signed into law in January 2021. The Honoring Our PACT Act, which was signed into law in 2022, now allows veterans who have been exposed to toxins to receive treatment for their breast cancer, following the concerns I raised directly with the Defense Department about increased breast cancer risks from toxic exposure.
- Supporting allies who fought alongside the U.S Military. Aiding our Afghan allies who put their lives on the line to support our troops is the right and necessary thing to do. That is why in 2022 I introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to give Afghan evacuees who go through additional vetting a green card so that they can start to build their lives in the United States. This is what we did in the wake of the Vietnam War to help refugees, and it’s critical that we do the same thing now.