Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Mr. Todd Bowers, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Director of Government Affairs
Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee and my fellow veterans, it is both an honor and a privilege to be here today. Please let me begin by thanking the Committee for your continued support in ensuring that our nation’s newest veterans continue to receive the support they have rightfully earned. My name is Todd Bowers and I am a Sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves stationed here in Washington DC. Previously, I served in two voluntary tours in Iraq and I am now the Director of Government Affairs for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, also known as IAVA. IAVA is the nation’s first and largest organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. IAVA believes that the troops and veterans who have served and are currently serving on the front lines are uniquely qualified to speak about the realities of war. Veterans are in a position to educate the public and our nation’s leaders regarding the health of our military and its implications for national security.
I have been invited here today to discuss three pieces of legislation- H.R. 585, H.R. 156 and H.R. 704. All three are directed towards benefiting the lives of veterans and, just as importantly, their families.
H.R. 585 expands the number of people who qualify for retroactive benefits from traumatic injury protection coverage under Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance. Currently, a traumatic injury must have happened in the OEF/OIF theater of operations for it to be covered. That means that injuries that occur in the line of duty but NOT in theater are not covered. My research shows that members of the armed services have been injured in over 18 countries in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. H.R. 585 is clearly a sensible fix.
But H.R. 585 raises a larger issue and one that I would like to address. The requirement that veterans show the precise source of their traumatic injuries is often a daunting task. Many traumatic injuries involve closed head wounds that are often difficult to connect to one particular event among many. For example, on October 17th 2004 on the outskirts of Fallujah, I was shot in the face while conducting a patrol. The sniper’s round penetrated the scope I was using and sent fragmentation into the left side of my face. The impact of the bullet was strong enough to throw me backwards approximately three feet. Though this incident may sound severe, I assure you, it was one of the more minimal wounds seen in theatre. For this incident, I only received a one page handwritten piece of paper documenting my injuries. The rest of the proof is in the form of metal lodged in my cheek bone. I was lucky. Many are far worse off than I am.
Some of these individuals who may have a more difficult time properly documenting and identifying their injuries are those who suffer from Traumatic Brain Injuries, the signature wounds of the Iraq War. TBI can accumulate if troops are exposed to multiple blasts during their deployments. Often, there is little or no physical trace of mild to moderate TBI, and the symptoms, such as difficulties with memory or emotional problems, are only recognized months or years later. As a result, although veterans’ advocates believe that between 10% and 20% of Iraq veterans, or between 150,000 and 300,000 people, have some level of TBI, their injuries often go undiagnosed and untreated. More disturbing is the fact that many veterans do not understand the importance of documenting any traumatic incident they may have endured. I recently spoke to a Marine who was involved in two Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts while serving in Iraq on his second tour. When I asked him if he had any paperwork or documentation regarding the incidents, he told me that he thought the military would take care of it.
The most common flags seen when walking the Halls of Congress other than Old Glory are Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) flags. These flags represent a deeply held sentiment of the American people: We will never forget our brothers in arms who have spent, and will spend, long months and years away from their families in order to serve our nation. It is our duty to ensure that we take care of these families as if they were our own. H.R. 156 is a step in the right direction and I am pleased to see legislation updating the current benefits system to include more families of veterans.
Taking care of families is a vital part of taking care of those who have served. Those who make the ultimate sacrifice for our country should rest assured that their spouses will be provided for in their absence. Benefits given to surviving spouses are paid for in immeasurable grief, and represent a small part of the debt we as a nation owe to the families of veterans. That is why I am pleased to see legislation such as H.R. 704 receiving appropriate attention.
Again, I thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today regarding these very important issues. I am prepared to answer your questions to the best of my ability at this time.