As a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and a strong advocate for our men and women in uniform, I am continually working to ensure that our military is prepared to meet the challenges and demands of the 21st century. With the threat of terrorism a constant reality, it is increasingly important that we provide our military with the resources and training to protect our nation during periods of conflict. In order to preserve our national security in the present and in the future, we must strengthen our commitment to the armed forces by ensuring that their needs and sacrifices are recognized today.
With Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base, Camp Lejeune, New River Air Station, Cherry Point, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and several Coast Guard stations, in addition to our National Guard and Reserves, North Carolina is often at the forefront of our military missions and the home to many of the brave men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting our nation. That is why I work with my colleagues on the HASC to provide the necessary funding to train and equip our military forces at home and abroad.
Recently, the HASC reviewed both the defense budget request for FY2011 and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which serves as a roadmap for defense programs for the next 20 years. At a time of tremendous economic difficulty, unprecedented deficits, and spending freezes in other parts of the budget, both the budget request and the QDR demonstrates the clear need for maintaining a strong commitment to our military engaged in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other areas around the globe. In addition to contingency funding, the budget includes a military pay raise, a large housing allowance increase, $1.4 billion for NC military construction, no increases in healthcare fees, and numerous initiatives to help military families. In addition, the QDR lays out a plan for how we are going to fight and win both today’s wars and future conflicts.
The United States has the greatest military in the history of the world, and our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are highly capable and dedicated individuals. I pray daily for all our Armed Forces, and I maintain my strong commitment to do all I can to help them while also keeping our country safe.
Throughout their time in uniform, the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces have never given up when defending American freedoms and ideals. For this reason, now, more than ever, our veterans have earned the right to demand the same commitment from their country.
State and local government budgets continue to be trimmed to cope with growing deficits. As a result, it is critical that local veterans outreach organizations, such as our nation’s county veterans’ service offices, remain funded to continue the critical outreach they provide to veterans who need help accessing their benefits. The financial crisis has made it even more important for veterans to have easy access to competent assistance when getting the benefits they were promised when they signed up for duty. For this reason, I authored the Veterans Outreach Improvement Act. This measure would allow the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to partner with state and local governments, through grant opportunities, and to reach out to veterans and their families to ensure they receive the benefits for which they are eligible and assist them in completing their benefits claims. The Secretary of the VA would direct grants to states with large and growing populations of veterans in order to increase outreach where it is most needed. In addition, grants could be used for education and training of state and county officials to gain accreditation and for continuing education.
In addition, I continue to support a robust annual Military Construction and VA Appropriations bill that adequately meets the growing needs of our veterans. While significant steps were made through the funding levels approved by these bills, I continue to support initiatives that provide for assured funding for veterans’ health care. As you may know, currently, the money that is set aside for VA hospitals and clinics falls under the discretionary spending category. Each year, funding levels for the VA must be approved by the U.S. Congress, meaning that there is no guarantee that each annual appropriation will be increased as the needs and demands of veterans grow. I completely disagree with this approach to funding our veterans’ health care, and, as a result, I supported the passage of a measure that authorizes the U.S. Congress to approve VA medical care appropriations one year in advance of the start of each fiscal year. This bill has been signed into law and will now allow the U.S. Congress to provide for sufficient, timely, and predictable funding for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
Another issue that is affecting our nation’s veterans is the high unemployment rates that continue to impact the men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The unemployment figures for this segment of our veteran demographic have consistently been above the national average. Unfortunately, the economic downturn has only made these numbers increase. For this reason, I have taken steps to improve the employment outreach and job creation programs offered to our veterans. I also support increasing the cost-of-living adjustment for disabled veterans, and support measures that guarantee that they receive benefits and services that keep pace with inflation and their needs.
I am also opposed to raising TRICARE fees on our military retirees. Throughout my time in Washington, I have opposed these types of proposals, and I will continue to support legislation that will bar large military health fee increases now and in the future. Raising fees at the expense of the well-being of military retirees is not the solution to our nation’s financial problems.
I continue to support efforts to restore full concurrent receipt for our disabled military retirees. It is time that we put an end to the veterans' concurrent receipt tax which forces disabled military retirees to give up one dollar of their retirement pensions for every dollar of disability they receive. Furthermore, I have consistently fought against another injustice that is suffered by the dependents of a deceased serviceman or woman. I will continue to support efforts that allow military surviving spouses to receive both Survivor Benefits Plan payments and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation in full.
Improving the mental health care of our veterans, both who have recently returned from active duty, as well as those who have served in past conflicts, continues to be one of my top veterans’ priorities. Major progress was made during the 110th Congress that addressed the problems posed by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). For example, I supported authorization for the construction of five new polytrauma centers and three Centers of Excellence in Mental Health. I was also an original co-sponsor of the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, which was passed by the U.S. House and provides outreach, education, and training to VA staff to ensure that our veterans are receiving adequate mental health care. Please rest assured that I will continue to support measures that enhance existing programs and create new ones to address the ever changing mental health care needs for all veterans.
I remain committed to improving and expanding the veterans’ health services available in Eastern North Carolina. I have secured final plans and confirmed a location for a new VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Robeson County and have also secured final approval and a location for a 100,000 square foot VA Super Clinic to be built and opened in New Hanover County. I am looking forward to it's official opening in April of 2013. I fought to bring a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic to Brunswick County. I also support increasing the mental health outreach services to veterans living in our area by adding additional Vet Centers and locations where veterans and their family members can receive peer-to-peer to counseling and other types of mental health therapy.