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. My father received outstanding care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) throughout his life, and we must continue to honor our promise to provide veterans with the world-class health care and education benefits they've earned. If you have served our country, we owe you a debt of gratitude that matches your sacrifice — and I will not stop fighting to keep that ironclad promise.
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 for our veterans the benefits they deserve, ensure that the voices of Colorado's veterans are heard and guarantee that they are shown the respect they have earned.
And that holds true regardless of where veterans live. That's why I successfully worked with Grand Junction's Community Hospital to ensure Western Slope veterans had ready access to essential surgical procedures they could not receive through a local VA medical center.
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 (TBI) are signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that their effects can last long after our soldiers have returned home. It is critical that we do all we can to provide state-of-the-art care to our veterans suffering from PTS and TBI. In 2013 I put together a bipartisan, bicameral taskforce of medical experts and veterans to study current services and treatments and determine how to improve the services available to Colorado's veterans. 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 new stand-alone, 200-bed tertiary care VA 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.
In November 2011, the VA broke ground and began construction on the new facility. Since that time, there have been a series of well-publicized disputes between the prime contractor on the project and the VA, and while construction continues, the project has experienced significant cost overruns and delays. I have urged the VA to bring in construction experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the project back on track, and I will continue to exercise my oversight powers to ensure the work is done as efficiently and effectively as possible. This hospital is essential for Colorado's veterans, and I will continue to lead the Colorado congressional delegation's efforts to provide the best health care available for those who have served.
The U.S. 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 our 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 the Pikes Peak region and Colorado's largest veterans' community. 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. I was proud to lead the congressional effort to encourage the VA to find a common-sense solution to this issue, and in early 2014, the VA announced that it has acquired the land, water and mineral rights for a new veterans' cemetery in southern Colorado. The new cemetery will be located on 374 acres of land in El Paso County. It will be a few years before this new cemetery is open, but this is an important step toward ensuring southern Colorado's veterans have a final resting place that honors the sacrifice they have made for our freedom.
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's why I urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to streamline the process for treating veterans with PTS who were still waiting to access the benefits they deserved. In response to my request, the VA announced that PTS claims would no longer require a claims adjudicator to corroborate a veteran's PTS injuries before benefits can be awarded. This change has helped veterans get the treatment they need more quickly. I also established a bipartisan Joint Taskforce on Post-Traumatic Stress — composed of clinicians, behavioral health experts and Colorado veterans — to explore the issues veterans with PTS face and provide recommendations for improving assistance.
The high unemployment rate among returning veterans is unacceptable, particularly given the training, professionalism, dedication and work ethic our service members have already shown in serving our country. In order to connect veterans with employers, I have hosted veterans resource forums across Colorado to help local businesses recruit, interview and employ veterans. I am also a cosponsor of the Troop Talent Act, a bill that ensures that credentials and professional skills acquired in the military are more easily transferred to public and private sector careers. This will help to eliminate unnecessary retraining and speed the transition from active duty to the civilian workforce.
Outdoor recreation and other physical activities offer some of the best rehabilitation opportunities for many disabled veterans. That's why I was proud to support the effort to reauthorize the VA Adaptive Integrated Sports Program, which allows qualifying adaptive sports programs to partner with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure necessary support for these effective and therapeutic competitive programs. This legislation, which became law at the end of 2013, will help local organizations like the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park maintain their paralympic programs and continue to serve our nation's brave veterans.
The recent bipartisan budget agreement wasn't perfect, but it will help to head off another destructive government shutdown and moderate the impact of a second round of so-called "sequestration" cuts to defense and non-defense priorities. While we need to reduce the federal budget deficit, Congress can and should replace a provision in the recently passed budget agreement that would otherwise unduly reduce the pensions of some retired service members starting in 2015. That's why I'm fighting to pass the Military Retirement Restoration Act which prevents these cuts to military retiree pensions by eliminating a tax loophole for offshore corporations.
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.