Since former President George W. Bush launched a war against terrorism in the Middle East, more than a million Americans have donned the nation's military uniform and served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Barack Obama signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act into law. It is Congress’ attempt to pave the way for the transition of those service members back into civilian life.
“We’re forever mindful that our obligations to our troops don’t end on the battlefield,” Obama said. “Just as we have a responsibility to train and equip them when we send them into harm’s way, we have a responsibility to take care of them when they come home.”
He’s right, and S. 1963, the federal legislation that passed Congress unanimously and was signed into law by the president on May 4, is definitely a step in the right direction.
Living as we do in the shadow of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, South Sound residents have watched time and again as our courageous men and women in uniform have bid farewell to their loved ones and flown off for the umpteenth time for the war zone. We mourn each casualty report and rejoice upon the safe return of each military unit. In between, we read the stories about increased suicide rates among service members. We hear stories about the violence that sometimes erupts in families and learn about the horrible consequences for families and service members as they cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
We have seen the scars from the battlefield and the life-altering, crippling injuries suffered by some of the men and women. We see homeless veterans living on the street. We read the stories of their struggles with substance abuse addictions and their inability to cope with their battles against mental illness. We see the sacrifices that spouses and children have made.
And, unfortunately, we’ve seen how ill-prepared our Veterans Administration has been to address these monumental challenges.
Hopefully, that will change under the new omnibus veterans bill.
The bill dramatically increases funding for veterans’ health care, especially those with the signature wounds of today’s wars — PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The president noted that the legislation expands mental health counseling and services for veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, including National Guardsmen and reservists. Under the new law, hospitals and clinics outside VA are authorized to serve more wounded service members.
The law increases support to veterans in rural areas to cope with transportation and housing barriers that prevent them from accessing VA services. The bill eliminates co-pays for veterans who are catastrophically disabled. It also expands support to homeless veterans. As Obama said, “In the United States of America, no one who has served this nation in uniform should ever be living on the streets.”
The bill also makes a strong commitment to families and caregivers who assist wounded warriors.
People caring for a severely injured veteran from Afghanistan or Iraq will receive a stipend and other assistance, including lodging when they travel for their loved one’s treatment. The bill provides funds to train caregivers to provide specialized services and offers those caregivers counseling and health insurance.
Standing at the president’s side at the signing ceremony was Washington Sen. Patty Murray, whose bill expanding and improving health care for female veterans was part of the comprehensive bill. The legislation addresses the unique needs of female veterans, including maternity care for newborn children. The bill launches a pilot program to provide child care for veterans receiving intensive medical care.
Murray, a Democrat, noted that women make up 15 percent of this nation’s current active duty, guard and reserves. The number of female veterans who use the Veterans Administration is projected to double in the next five years.
Congress’ job does not end with passage of S. 1963. Members of Congress must be vigilant in their oversight of VA, ensuring that the programs they have put in place to serve veterans are delivered. Our valiant service members deserve nothing less.
- The Olympian