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.
With as many as 700,000 veterans and armed forces personnel from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq expected to enter the military and VA health care systems in the coming years, 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 scrimping is unconscionable, and where bureaucratic delays are unacceptable. I look forward to continuing my efforts to secure the benefits that our veterans deserve. It is critical that we 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 Disorder (PTSD) resulting from action on today's battlefield. We all know that PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury are signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to do all we can to ensure America's veterans are well cared for when they come home, including ensuring they have access to behavioral and mental health services to treat these injuries and 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 base 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 very 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 by early 2015. I will work hard in the coming years to use my powers of oversight to ensure the work is done as efficiently and effectively as possible - and to ensure that sufficient funding is appropriated. This hospital is badly needed, and it is long past time to complete construction and ensure our veterans can get 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 inconveniently located far from Colorado's largest veterans' community in the Pikes Peak region. In addition 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 expanding 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.
I have a deep respect for those who have served our country in uniform, and I know how important it is that we honor our promise to provide veterans with the tools necessary to make a successful transition into the civilian workforce. The common-sense Veterans Jobs Corps Act will help to connect veterans with good-paying careers that take advantage of their unique skillsets, maturity and professionalism. The bill benefits those who have served our nation and the communities they live in, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that our veterans are given every opportunity to apply the skills they acquire in the military to jobs in the civilian sector.
I am deeply troubled by those who misrepresent their military experience for personal gain, and I believe that their actions do a great disservice to members of our military. That is why I became an original cosponsor of the Stolen Valor Act in 2006. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down that law, I will once again put my full support behind those service members who bravely fought and sacrificed for our country. The Military Service Integrity Act will ensure that the sacrifices and valor of those who have served is not cheapened by con artists and liars who seek to take advantage of the public’s respect for our troops and veterans.
I worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that post-9/11 veterans across the country - including over 5,000 in Colorado - know they are potentially eligible for higher medical benefits or even full medical retirement. After my request to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in August, the Defense Department will team with the VA to let recent veterans know they can appeal the disability decision made when they left the military. Colorado has the reviewing board's third-largest eligible population of veterans in the country, and I want to ensure each of them has a chance to get the benefits they should have earned to begin with.
On Nov. 3, 2011, I co-sponsored Senator Tom Udall's bipartisan Open Burn Pit Registry Act (S.1798) because our service members overseas are too frequently exposed to toxic fumes and chemicals from burn pits used to incinerate trash including human waste, plastic, batteries, scrap metals, solvents, and other potentially hazardous materials. We must do more to track and identify those exposed to hazardous chemicals from burn pits, to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to better understand and treat the threat posed by exposure to these fumes. Our servicemen and women put their lives on the line for our safety, and in return we have promised to provide them with the best possible care. I will always fight to protect and promote the health of our men and women in uniform. This important provision was included in S. 3202, the "Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012," that passed the Senate on December 19, 2012. A related measure was also included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.
Our service members and their families sacrifice everything for our security, and they deserve the best care we can provide for them. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) affecting so many of our returning service members, it is especially important that we address these hidden wounds of war. That is why I recently introduced two amendments to the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act to improve the quality and accessibility of behavioral health care available to these heroes. One amendment would extend suicide-prevention services to active-duty troops and veterans in Colorado and across the country. The second would expand a behavioral health pilot program, which has been successful at Fort Carson, making it available to at least three other Army installations. When it comes to behavioral health care, the military has made significant progress. But the fact remains that too many of our troops return from service suffering from PTSD or TBI and struggle to get access to the care they need. I will always fight to ensure service members and veterans get the care they were promised and that they have earned.