My Turn: In America, much remains to be done on behalf of veterans

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

America officially honors her veterans on Monday. Although we take just one day of the year to recognize what veterans have done for us, it is understood that we are in constant debt to those who defended our country's liberty. Those of us in Congress know that this debt we owe can not be entirely paid in parades and memorials, and that we must also provide concrete assistance to veterans.

In the 2000 Census, there were 26.4 million veterans, a 6 percent decrease from the 1990 population of 28.1 million. This was 13 percent of the population aged 18 and over, and 9 percent of the total population. Alaska has the highest percentage of veterans in the country - 17 percent of the population aged 18 and over. Of special interest, and special obligation, is the fact that in 2000 there were 2.3 million veterans receiving benefits for service-related disabilities.

And as we continue to engage in the War on Terrorism, the current members of our armed services, who will be tomorrow's veterans, cannot help but see how America cares for those who previously fought. My fellow members of Congress and I have enacted several important initiatives over the last few years to improve the care and treatment of veterans.

The House voted this year to provide a 12 percent funding increase for VA health care. During the upcoming session of Congress, I believe we will be able to enact these numbers for the 2003 fiscal year. Congress also recently increased the Montgomery GI Bill benefits (by $100 a month), increased funeral and burial expense benefits, expanded the list of illnesses presumed to be service-connected (including for Gulf War illnesses and Agent Orange exposure), increased home loan guarantees, authorized increases in housing vouchers for homeless veterans, expedited construction of the World War II Memorial, and passed significant legislation allowing, for the first time, special payments for military retirees who are 70 percent or more disabled - the first steps toward "concurrent receipt."

In the months ahead, there is much more work to be done on concurrent receipt, and we must also address our aging VA medical facilities, especially the Seattle VA hospital, which was earthquake-damaged. Legislation funding its repair sits before the Senate VA committee, and I hope they can move quickly on it.

Veterans day is celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month - the day the "War to End All Wars" came to a close. Until we have truly ended all wars, we will have to rely on our armed service members, just as we have in the past. I hope all Alaskans will join me in thanking our veterans for being up to the task, and contributing so much to our country.

Don Young represents Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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