We can do much more than remember our veterans

On Veterans Day in 1985, President Reagan spoke of those who laid down their lives for our country. “Most of them were boys when they died,” he said, “and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived.”

When today we honor the men — and women — who have returned from military service, we must do more than thank them for the life they gave up while serving overseas. We must do everything in our power to help them live that second life — the one they should be able to enjoy when they come home.

That means making sure they can find a home and a job, recover from physical and psychological wounds, and take advantage of the benefits they were promised when they enlisted — benefits they have earned with their courageous sacrifices.

One reason I wanted to be a senator was that, after visiting our troops overseas on seven USO tours (including four in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait), I wanted to be able to do more for them when they came home. That’s why the very first bill I introduced — which was passed into law — was to help physically and psychologically wounded veterans by pairing them with service dogs.

This month, I’m introducing another piece of legislation to improve access to health care for veterans living in rural communities. Rural Americans represent over 40 percent of the veteran population — but rural areas face a profound shortage of medical providers and facilities. Rural veterans often must drive hundreds of miles to get to a VA Medical Center that can provide them with the care they need — and the problem is particularly difficult for female veterans who need specialized care.

Meanwhile, I’ve urged the VA to adopt the National Diabetes Prevention Program, which I established in the health care reform law with my Republican colleague, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. This program — which has been successfully tested in Minnesota — can help people avoid developing this dangerous and costly disease through exercise and nutrition education. We can help keep veterans healthy — and save money — if the VA gets involved.

Even in a time of tight budgets, we cannot shortchange the VA. I agree that the sacrifice it will take to close the deficit must be shared. But veterans — particularly those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade — have already sacrificed so much. We can’t turn our backs on them now.

But not every veterans’ issue is played out on the Senate floor. My office works constantly behind the scenes to help veterans navigate the complicated federal bureaucracy (one out of every six constituent cases we handle involves a veteran) and secure the benefits they’ve earned.

For instance, the VA recently ruled that veterans who have suffered from a series of conditions after being exposed to Agent Orange are eligible for benefits. We cheered the decision — but we heard from several Minnesota veterans that they were having a hard time applying for these benefits and receiving confusing information from the VA. I brought their concerns to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and now the VA is communicating more effectively with veterans and processing their applications more quickly.

In that 1985 speech, President Reagan said of our fallen troops: “They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.”

When I see an honor flight of Minnesota veterans coming to D.C. to tour the monuments erected in commemoration of their bravery, when Franni tells me about a poignant meeting she had with families of those serving overseas, and especially when our nation pauses to celebrate Veterans Day, I am reminded that, with our veterans, we can do much more than remember.

We can act. We can fight to ensure they have the benefits they’ve earned, the health care they need, and the tools to continue contributing to their communities. And it’s my job to make sure they get those things — a job I’m incredibly proud to have.— U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.