Patty in the News

Today we honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans. It is a day of remembrance, but also for reflection.

When Americans, like the thousands from Fort Lewis currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, sign up to serve, our country vows to care for them when they return. This is more than a promise; it’s a solemn duty. And today is the time to ask: are we doing enough for them and their families?

Growing up, I saw firsthand the many ways that military service impacts veterans and families. My father was a disabled World War II veteran. Like many soldiers of his generation, my father didn’t talk about his experiences. In fact, we only really learned his story by reading his journals after he passed away.

My father’s story offers a larger lesson: Veterans are often reluctant to call attention to their service or ask for help. That’s why we need a Department of Veterans Affairs ready and able to care for veterans of all wars.

With troops fighting overseas, veterans coming home every day, and countless more aging into the system, the VA is facing unprecedented challenges.

The Obama administration is working to change a leadership culture at the VA that for years has downplayed problems and made the bottom-line the top priority. President Obama’s first budget included an historic funding increase to help modernize the VA. And VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself, has made some good early progress.

But there is still a lot to be done.

There are three key ways that the VA can show a renewed commitment to veterans.

First, the VA must move quickly to address its benefits backlog and flawed disability rating systems.

Veterans are waiting far too long for benefits and there simply aren’t enough processors to file the claims. Arbitrary time limits close the door to some benefits altogether and a flawed process can leave veterans with the same health conditions with different disability ratings.

The administration took a good first step with its plan for a comprehensive electronic records system. This will streamline the transition of health records between the Department of Defense and the VA to reduce mistakes, cut through red tape and close gaps in care between the VA and the Department of Defense.

We will evaluate the system’s progress but must still ensure there are enough claims processors to get our veterans their benefits as quickly as possible.

Next, the VA must improve and expand mental health services.

Mental wounds leave scars just as deep as physical injuries. The VA’s own numbers show one-third of all returning veterans will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s an astounding statistic.

Just three years ago a VA undersecretary revealed that some VA clinics don’t provide mental health or substance abuse care, or if they do, “waiting lists render that care virtually inaccessible.”

The VA must hire enough well-trained mental health experts. But we must also focus on a broader outreach and education effort that begins in basic training and breaks down the stigma associated with seeking care for the psychological wounds of war in the military and the VA.

Finally, the VA must recognize that with a modern military comes a changing veterans population.

Over the past decade women have stepped up to serve at unprecedented levels and now make up 15 percent of our active duty Guard and Reserve forces, but the VA remains ill-prepared to care for their unique needs.

The VA must address the barriers to care for women and hire the trained professional staff to ensure they have equal access to the benefits, services and support needed to transition back to their unique roles in civilian life.

In 1789, George Washington said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.”

Washington’s words ring true today. But our veterans deserve more than words – they need action. And on this day of remembrance and reflection, the best way to honor our veterans is to fulfill the promise to provide them with the care and benefits they have earned.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

- The News Tribune