In 1971, Randy Clifford was a door gunner on a Huey helicopter with the First Cavalry in Vietnam whose mission was a dangerous one: flying low along the Cambodian border to draw fire from the enemy so they would reveal their location.
Randy was injured and earned the Bronze Star from his service. Between numerous hospital visits and the transfer of his personal belongings, his Purple Heart and Bronze Star went missing for nearly 40 years.
That is, until earlier this year, when my military and veterans affairs staff, Bob Doehl, tracked down replacement medals for Clifford and I was able to present them to him at a modest ceremony in Homer.
My staff in Alaska works with veterans every day to help them with issues large and small and it is an honor to provide assistance. Today I join Alaskans in saluting our veterans as we find better ways to serve their growing numbers in our state.
Veterans thrive in Alaska communities. With more than 77,000 veterans who call Alaska home, our state boasts the highest ratio of veterans per capita in the U.S. at 17 percent. Alaska is also home to one of the youngest veteran populations, which explains why our universities enjoy some of the highest vets-to-student ratio in the country.
Because a growing number of veterans call Alaska home, we must ensure our veterans receive the highest quality of services available to them, with the convenience of being accommodated in Alaska. They deserve the best. They’ve earned it.
The Veterans Benefits Administration office in Anchorage continues to rise to the challenge. Currently, the average claim processing time at the Anchorage office is 149 days, substantially faster than the national average of 226 days and 49 days less than at this same point last year. While there is still more to do to speed up the process, these numbers reflect significant progress in the right direction and I’ll continue to work with my colleagues on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to push for improvement in both services and response time to our veterans.
The Alaska Veterans Health Administration also continues to search for workable solutions to providing medical services to our vets in our state. I brought VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to Alaska to see firsthand the challenges of providing services to vets in remote Alaska.
A benefit of this visit was a commitment by Secretary Shinseki to partner with Alaska Native tribal health corporations to provide medical care to vets if VA facilities are not nearby. So far, 28 of these corporations have signed agreements with the VA to provide care locally instead of requiring rural veterans to travel to Anchorage, Juneau, Kenai or Fairbanks. This can make all the difference to veterans who want to stay close to home and their families while receiving quality care.
Another area of concern for me is employment for returning service members. I’ve hosted employment forums and job fairs for veterans in Fairbanks and Anchorage on this issue and my bill, the Vow to Hire Heroes Act which reauthorizes transition, retraining and employment services, recently became law.
I’m sponsoring a bill to require funding for veterans services — even in the event of another government shut down. This bill prevents some of the hardships veterans faced during the unnecessary partial shut-down by ensuring they receive the disability checks they deserve.
We must also recognize the needs of the increasing number of women veterans. The Military Justice Improvement Act will handle sexual-related offenses outside of the chain of command. The Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvements Act includes counseling and treatment to severely wounded, ill, or injured veteran who has an infertility condition. Another bill ensures a veteran fleeing domestic violence can receive housing and counseling assistance.
Though progress has been made to improve services for veterans across the nation, there is still much work to do. Veterans Day reminds us of the sacrifices of those who provided military service to protect the freedoms of all Americans. I am proud Alaskans don’t need a reminder — our state knows the importance of honoring our veterans each and every day.