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Commentary: U.S. must provide for those who serve

Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have had many opportunities to meet with veterans from those conflicts. While their opinions on the wars were varied, these veterans were in agreement on two issues: they are proud of the...

Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have had many opportunities to meet with veterans from those conflicts. While their opinions on the wars were varied, these veterans were in agreement on two issues: they are proud of their service, and are desperately looking for guidance and respect as they cope with physical and psychological injuries.

Throughout their first, second or even third deployment, these men and women in uniform were adamantly committed to looking out for each other, making sure they each did his or her duty and got home safe. We owe these veterans the same level of loyalty and commitment that they gave to us and to themselves, often times at great personal cost.

Unfortunately, our returning soldiers have found that our nation has not fulfilled its responsibility to meet their most basic needs. After fighting terrorists and insurgents overseas, our veterans are now forced to fight for their medical services. They are forced to fight red tape. They are forced to fight for respect. This is wrong.

The sad fact is that the fight for proper, earned benefits for America's veterans goes back decades. In the 19th century, help for veterans was haphazard at best, with pension laws not enacted until years after a conflict was over, and scant attention was devoted to medical care or rehabilitation.

It wasn't until the 20th century that Congress enacted laws that provided more comprehensive and timely benefits for veterans and their families. However, it was too often the case that the funding for these benefits was not adequate to meet the needs of our veterans.

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Our veteran's health care system is in crisis. This year, it's expected that there will be more than 58 million outpatient visits to VA facilities. The number of new enrollees waiting for their first clinic appointment has skyrocketed. The bottom line is that the VA is overburdened and unable to keep up with the growing needs of veterans. The American Legion is saying this. The VFW is saying this. The DAV is saying this. And Democrats in Congress have been saying this.

To help offset the rising health care costs in the VA, the current administration has asked veterans to pay a larger share of the costs with enrollment fees and prescription drug co-pay increases, as well as limiting the number of veterans who can access VA facilities. I have long opposed these efforts to ask our veterans to shoulder these additional burdens to receive their earned benefits.

Instead of cutting benefits for veterans, we need to cut the red tape they face when applying for benefits. We need to cut the time veterans have to wait to be seen at a VA hospital. We need to cut the rising health care costs for veterans.

In the next few weeks, I will be visiting VA hospitals, outpatient clinics, veterans homes and speaking with administrators, doctors, nurses, service officers and veterans themselves to find out what is working, what is not working, and what can be done to better assist veterans.

Based on previous discussions with veterans, I know the health care within the VA system is topnotch. That's not the problem. We are failing these men and women as they make the transition from soldier to veteran and they are not receiving the follow-up care that they need. There are many veterans and VA employees who want to reinforce what's working and to fix what isn't. I want to hear from them.

On April 14, I will hold my first 2007 Hometown Values forum at the Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge, Minn., entitled "Our Military Community: Helping Those Who Serve." At the forum, I will have specialists in the VA field who will offer their own analysis and take questions from the audience. The forum is open to the public.

No citizens have paid a higher price, nor invested a larger stake in America, than those who now serve or have served in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and the Merchant Marines.

We need to go beyond honoring our veterans with dedications, monuments, holidays and lofty rhetoric. We need to honor them with the real and substantial support they deserve after shouldering the burden of defending the United States.

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Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, is a member of the U.S. House.

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