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Opening Statement of Hon. Bob Filner Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of California

Welcome to the newly elected National Commander of The American Legion, Marty Conatser.  As you know, the Committee did not hold joint legislative hearings last congress for the Veteran Service Organizations. 

Reinstituting this very important hearing was one of the first things I did as Chairman.  We are certainly looking forward to hearing your organization’s Views and Estimates for fiscal year 2009.

Before we start, I would like to extend my complements to The American Legion Washington staff and to tell you, Commander, what a pleasure it is to work with them.   

I would also like to take a moment to recognize those in the audience who traveled here from California.  Thank you all for coming – it is great to see you here today.

It is an honor for Senator Akaka and me to hear the views of The American Legion and its 2.7 million members.  Thank you for your advocacy for veterans.  We must continue to work together to provide our veterans the quality health care and services that they require…and that they have earned.

There is much to do.  As Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am in a position to help you solve problems and improve services and health care to our veterans.

I spoke with many of you in Reno, just last month.  I told you about the aggressive agenda we have taken on as a committee in support of our veterans.  And, I want to THANK YOU for your support and your willingness to help us care for those who have served this nation proudly.

Secretary Nicholson and I traveled to Iraq in August.  I was impressed by the heroism of the nation’s servicemen and women.  We made a terrible mistake in Vietnam (confusing the war and the warriors), and we must take care of the troops when they return!  I have often said…“there are many opinions on the war…and we may be divided in how we think about the war…BUT…we are UNITED in saying that every man and woman returning from this war will have all the respect, dignity, and care that a grateful nation has to offer.” 

As a nation and a congress we are striving for a “systematic relationship” between the VA and the Department of Defense.  This relationship needs to exist in order to provide seamless transition.  This relationship needs to exist – not only between the DoD and the VA, but also between the VA and VSOs and state and local agencies.  There is a vital role for all of us in serving the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

We will work to pass assured funding for veterans’ health care.  H.R. 2513 by Congressman Hare, “Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act.”  First introduced by Congressman Lane Evans in a previous Congress.

The richest country in the world – cannot take care of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and older veterans from earlier wars???  Care of our veterans is a cost of war!

Signature wounds of these wars: mental health (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury, Loss of Limbs.  More are surviving their wounds but will need life-time care!  That takes money.  Until we achieve assured funding, we must step up to provide a veterans’ budget that will make us proud.  We, in this Congress have included $13 billion more for the VA (in three budgets) – 30% more than last year.  This funding is for health care and for claims.

$13 billion is also to attack the broken claims process.  Yes, that is the correct conclusion when there is a 600,000 backlog.  It’s broken.  In our fix of this process, we must keep in mind – always – that the veteran is the one who should get the break.  If there is a doubt in a case, too often now the VA gets the break.  This is wrong!

I am proposing that all who submit a claim be provisionally approved and begin to get benefits, with a follow-up selective audit.  We must move to eliminate this claims backlog.  Oftentimes a claim delayed is a claim denied.

We just celebrated Labor Day. As I noted in a recent magazine article, this day “reminds us each year of the importance of assisting veterans in seeking and gaining meaningful employment.”

As you know, there are both federal and state employment and training programs targeted to help veterans.  The federal government operates programs to assist veterans seeking civilian employment (Transition Assistance Program – TAP, and Disabled Transition Assistance Program - DTAP are examples) and also provides veteran preferences in federal employment for veterans.  (TAP is a three-day workshop on job search.)

We must also provide support for veteran-owned small businesses and for service-disabled-veteran-owned small businesses - it is critical.

Government provides help at both the state and federal level for education benefits.  States provide a host of benefits for veterans, often working with the federal Department of Labor or with private industry.  We must publicize these programs!

GI Bill – an excellent program, but needs updating; increase the benefits to cover the expense of an education at a 4-year public college or university.  S.22 and H.R. 1102 offer a blueprint for a new system that reflects today’s realities.

We need to provide equity for the National Guard and Reserves.  Currently, while in school, active duty servicemembers get $1075 a month and Guard/Reserves get $309 a month.  Because the Guard and Reserves are now serving on active duty and in combat, their benefits should be the same as active duty.

Also, Guard and Reserves get benefits only while they are in the Guard/Reserves.  The benefits end when they have completed their service.  Rule made when Guard/Reserves were “weekend warriors.”  That is not the case now!  We must allow them to use benefits after serving.

Finally, need to lengthen time when benefits can be used, for both active duty and the Guard/Reserves.

Our Committee held a hearing yesterday on the findings of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors.  The Committee is willing to work with these recommendations as we make decisions to improve care.

There are two versions of the Wounded Warrior bill, passed by House and Senate.  The bills establish a comprehensive policy on the care and management of wounded warriors – to enhance their care, rehabilitation, physical evaluation, transition from DoD care to VA, transition to civilian life. 

Fewer Representatives in Congress are veterans today than in the days of Chairman Sonny Montgomery.  The is a need for education of Members as there is now more competition for dollars.  This is where The American Legion can play a major role.  Help us to understand so that we may help you.

Commander, I look forward to hearing the Views and Estimates of The American Legion.