My father served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and I have a deep respect for those who have served our country in uniform. From my father's experience, I know how important it is that we honor our promise to provide veterans with health care, education and other benefits. If you have served our country and risked your life for our freedom, we owe you a debt of gratitude that matches your sacrifice — and that includes comprehensive health care and benefits commensurate with your service.
Colorado is the proud home to over 400,000 veterans, and I believe it is our solemn and moral obligation to make sure that benefits and health care keep pace with the rising numbers of those who have served. This is an area of federal spending where cutting services is unconscionable, and where bureaucratic delays are unacceptable. I look forward to continuing my efforts to secure the benefits that our veterans deserve and to ensure that the voices of Colorado's veterans are heard and that they are shown the respect they have earned.
An issue particularly important to me is addressing the increasing incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) resulting from action on today's battlefield. We all know that PTS and Traumatic Brain Injury are signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that their effects can last long after our soldiers have returned home. We need to do all we can to ensure America's veterans are well cared for, including ensuring they have access to the behavioral and mental health services to treat these injuries and to help them reintegrate into civilian life.
Fitzsimons Veterans Medical Center
After years of delay and controversy about the future of Denver's VA Medical Center, Colorado's veterans got some good news in 2009 when the Obama Administration announced plans to build a stand-alone, 200-bed tertiary care hospital at the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora. The future of the aging Denver VA hospital had been a source of tension between the Colorado veterans' community and the VA, and I fought for many years to get the VA to honor its promise to replace the hospital. I'm glad that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki heard the voices of the Colorado Congressional delegation, our local veterans' community and veterans' service organizations, and came up with the right solution for Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.
In November 2011, the VA broke ground and began construction on the new facility, which is expected to be completed in 2015. I will continue to exercise my oversight powers to ensure the work is done as efficiently and effectively as possible. This hospital is badly needed, and it is long past time to move forward so we can ensure our veterans receive the best health care available.
The United States military is the strongest, most capable force in the world because of the professionalism, courage and commitment of our men and women in uniform. The troops who defend this nation understand the true meaning of hard work, the importance of teamwork and the rewards that come to those who don't quit until a job is done right. The same skills, work ethic and pride that can be found in our uniformed personnel carry through to the civilian workforce in our veterans. No one who has served our country in uniform should be without work after they leave the military, and Congress must do everything in its power to help our veterans make a smooth transition into the civilian workforce. That's why I was proud to support the Veterans Job Corps Act and other legislation designed to ensure that our military heroes have the skills and opportunity to find good paying jobs and long-term careers once they leave the service.
Bringing a National Veterans' Cemetery to Southern Colorado
Colorado currently has two national veterans' cemeteries — Fort Logan National Cemetery near Denver and Fort Lyons National Cemetery near Las Animas — both of which are located far from Colorado's largest veterans' community in the Pikes Peak region. In addition to the inconveniences of travel, the Fort Logan National Cemetery is expected to reach full capacity in 2019. Southern Colorado's veterans need a cemetery to call their own. After heeding my calls, and those of my U.S. House and Senate colleagues from Colorado, the VA committed to constructing a new national cemetery that will give the over 150,000 veterans in Southern Colorado a cemetery closer to home, while extending the time Colorado's existing cemeteries can be used. I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find a location for the new cemetery as soon as possible, to ensure Southern Colorado's veterans have a final resting place that honors the sacrifice they have made for our freedom.
With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, we’ve made great strides toward equality for all Coloradans. But despite overturning DOMA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not recognizing all legal same-sex marriages. Two Colorado residents, one of whom served in the Air Force for 10 years and was deployed four times, were recently denied federal VA benefits, even though they were lawfully married in a state that allows same-sex marriage. Servicemembers, veterans and their families deserve respect and support during and after their service and this kind of discrimination is simply unacceptable. That’s why I have asked the president to work with the VA to take immediate action to correct this injustice and ensure all veterans can access the benefits they have earned.
Our veterans often have to deal with too much red tape in order to access the benefits they deserve. The newly designed Veteran Identification Cards are intended to streamline veterans' access to VA facilities, but the application process is unnecessarily cumbersome and time-consuming. For example, veterans are required to make two separate trips to a VA facility in order to apply for the card, which places an undue burden on many veterans – especially those living in rural areas. And for homeless and transitioning vets, the requirement to provide a permanent mailing address could make it impossible for those who need the VA's services most to receive a card. That's why I sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking him to reassess the VA's application requirements for veterans ID cards to ensure every veteran is able to enjoy the timely and high-quality healthcare they've earned.
Military families and victims of natural disasters — like Colorado's devastating floods — shouldn't suffer if Washington gridlock and partisan stalemates lead to a government shutdown. That's why I introduced the bipartisan Military Pay Protection Act with my colleague Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to ensure that our men and women in uniform and the civilian personnel who support them on the battlefield and during disaster-recovery efforts do not suffer if Congress is unable or unwilling to pay its bills. I refuse to allow our military families and victims of natural disasters to be used as political leverage by Beltway politicians.
Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to serve our country. When they return home, it is our duty to make sure our nation's veterans have access to the health care services they need and deserve. However, too many veterans on the Western Slope have to travel more than 100 miles to Denver or Salt Lake City for common surgeries. As part of my continued fight for veterans across the state, I called on Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to honor his commitment to bring back these common surgery capabilities to the Grand Junction VA hospital as soon as possible. Veterans residing in rural communities should not be burdened with excessive travel in order to access quality health care when a local hospital can meet their needs. It is crucial the VA fulfills its promise and brings the services our veterans need back to the Western Slope.
Veterans who lost their homes in Colorado's recent wildfires have already suffered significant financial and personal losses. But some are forced to pay additional fees when they use VA loans to purchase a replacement home. In fact, one Colorado veteran recently had to pay thousands of dollars in non-reimbursable fees for a Veterans Affairs-backed home refinance loan only to lose his house a few months later in the Black Forest Fire. That's why I have asked the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, to reimburse these financing fees, so our veterans who must find new homes won't be further burdened.