During my senior year at Washington State University, I interned for a semester at the Seattle VA Hospital, helping to treat young soldiers returning home from Vietnam. All bore scars of their service to our country, although some were not apparent on the surface.

I will never forget the sound of the door locking behind me after walking onto the hospital's psychiatric ward to spend the day with these heroes. While these combat veterans were my age, they had endured experiences most of us could never imagine.

At the time, no one had heard of "post-traumatic stress disorder," and Agent Orange was unknown outside a small group of Pentagon planners.

These soldiers, who had fought for our freedom, carried with them a legacy of war long after they had retired from active duty.

In 1991, another round of soldiers returned home from another distant war. Like Vietnam, we did not realize at the time that thousands of soldiers would be affected by their service long after they came home. Gulf War Syndrome caused chronic fatigue, headaches and neurological problems for vets years after they left the service.

We now have 130,000 soldiers serving in Iraq, and nearly 7,000 from our state are on their way. We don't know how their service will affect them in the years to come. But we do know they will require — and deserve — the medical care and benefits they have earned through their noble service to our country.

On this Veterans Day, we must honor our veterans, not only by giving patriotic speeches one day a year, but through our actions every day of the year.

Unfortunately, Congress is not adequately honoring the sacrifice that our veterans have made for us. Consider:

  • Today, 80,000 veterans must wait six months or more just to get an appointment at a VA hospital, and that number is growing.

  • Funding for veterans' health care is subjected to an annual debate in Congress over how much we should provide.

  • At the same time, the Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to "reconfig-ure" veterans' health care and is now studying the closure of two VA facilities in Washington state.

At a time when we are sending the next generation of veterans into combat in Iraq, we should not be shrinking from our responsibilities to care for veterans after they come home.

But the House provided nearly $2 billion less for veterans' health care than had been promised in this year's budget.

I have worked with colleagues on both sides to restore the House's cut, and I hope we will succeed in the final days of this session. But this episode illustrates the need to remove veterans' health-care funding from the changing priorities of politicians.

That is why I support the Veterans' Health Care Funding Guarantee Act, which would make veterans' health-care funding mandatory. This legislation would end annual fights in Congress about how much health care to provide year-to-year. It would be an automatic priority for our nation. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, Amvets, the Disabled American Veterans and many other veterans groups strongly support this bill.

Meanwhile, we must also make sure that the Department of Veterans Affairs does not close critical medical facilities at a time when more are seeking VA health care. Unfortunately, that is just what's happening.

The department has started an initiative to "restructure" VA health care, known as the CARES (capital asset realignment for enhanced services) process. While the goal may be noble, the CARES process now appears to be an effort to simply close facilities.

In July, the VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., directed its regional office in Vancouver, Clark County, to study the closure of facilities in Vancouver and Walla Walla. This would force Washington state veterans to travel even farther to seek the medical care they need and deserve. This is the wrong message to send to America's current and future veterans.

No one can predict how long the war on terrorism will last. But we do know that more soldiers will be called to duty and that today's soldiers are tomorrow's veterans. Before our young people answer the call to serve their country, they must know that they will be protected when they return. With a new generation of combat veterans deployed around the world, the federal government must meet its obligations to veterans rather than look away in favor of other priorities.

We must all support our troops — both while they are serving and after they return home.