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  • 16 Sep 2014

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My View: Nation must improve care for veterans

For generations, our country has reaped the benefits of a powerful military — a military that has defended our freedom and helped pursue peace and autonomy for other nations abroad. Service members have traveled thousands of miles from home to fight battles that others would not, and they have risked their lives to defend the freedoms we enjoy.

With their service and sacrifice comes a promise of support when they return home. That promise includes access to education, medical care and other benefits to help them succeed.

Sadly, we continue to fall short on that promise.

Reports of efforts to cover up exceptionally long wait times for veterans exposed what we now know to be systemic problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs. This revelation coincided with a series of general town hall meetings I hosted in which several veterans cited inadequate treatment at VA centers, long wait times, and problems accessing benefits.

In light of those concerns, I hosted three veterans’ forums around the district to hear directly from service members.

The discussion at these forums was honest and, at times, emotional. Although some veterans expressed satisfaction with the care they receive at the VA, many voiced frustration with the system. Some veterans said they have been waiting more than a year to receive retroactive benefits, while others waited months to get an appointment with a doctor or to receive affordable housing vouchers. The fact that our veterans struggle to get basic necessities, such as health care and housing, is unacceptable, and it emphasizes the work we have to do to fix this broken system.

According to the 2010 census, there are more than 300,000 veterans in Oregon and more than 20 million in the United States. A recent White House report identifies a shortage of staff as one of the issues contributing to the patient backlog.

To adequately serve such a large population, our VA system needs more doctors, more support staff and more overall resources to meet demand. Both the House and Senate have voted to provide additional resources; those bills are currently in a conference committee that is working on finding a source of funding.

But it isn’t just the number of veterans in need of care, it’s also the diversity of needs that must be met for four generations of veterans spanning World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each generation has different needs.

Many of our World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans continue to be affected by injuries from battles long ago, and they also have the health challenges that face us all as we grow older. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are often returning after multiple tours of duty, pushed to their breaking point. After years on a battlefield, they need better access to counseling and mental health services.

Further, we can’t expect all of the men and women who have been serving overseas for years to simply walk back into the American work force. Many need job training and job placement. We can provide industry-specific training that aligns with their active-duty work so they don’t have to start from square one when they get home.

There’s no question our veterans have the skills, intelligence and determination to be successful, but war can leave deep scars we cannot ignore. Mental health challenges brought on by traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder often contribute to homelessness among veterans.

The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program is meant to provide service members with rental assistance so they can maintain reliable housing. We have work to do here. Veterans have told me the vouchers are hard to come by and, even when the vouchers are available, some landlords refuse to accept them. We need to expand access to VASH vouchers and bar property owners from discriminating against veterans who use them.

Ultimately, better management, stricter oversight, and more transparency will help begin to address what have been exposed as problems within the VA system. Expanded mental health care, job training and easier access to affordable housing vouchers are some of the provisions we can offer right now to help our veterans succeed in the country they fought for so bravely.

It is our responsibility to fulfill the longstanding promise to these dedicated men and women.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) represents Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, which includes a portion of western Multnomah County and all of Washington County.