As we approach the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, some are asking how the Department of Veterans Affairs is caring for today’s Veterans. Contrary to recent press reports, the reality is Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are accessing VA services at an unprecedented rate.
I’m one of those Veterans who has utilized the many services provided by the VA. I used the GI Bill to complete my PhD, purchased a home with the help of a VA home loan, and receive world class health care from the VA. In an era of fiscal constraint, Secretary Shinseki and President Obama have fought not only to preserve these benefits, but to expand them.
Accessing health care has never been simpler. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans have the option of walking into one of 1,700 VA sites of care across the country, VA medical centers, community outpatient clinics or Vet Centers and signing up for five years of free health care. Not only can they do this, they have. With over 55% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans utilizing VA health care, it’s a rate of utilization greater than any other generation of Veterans.
Education benefits have never been greater. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides for enlisted, officers and some family members up to 36 months of benefits, an allowance for books, and a monthly housing stipend. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has helped over 900,000 Veterans and their families —more people than currently serve in the active U.S. Army and Navy — pursue undergraduate, graduate and technical degrees.
And for those Veterans in crisis, the responders at the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 Press 1, chat online or send a text message to 838255) are there to help 24/7. Every day in fiscal year 2012, responders answered approximately 530 calls and rescued nearly 18 Veterans and family members in crisis. Or if a Veteran wants to speak with a fellow Veteran, they can call the Combat Call Center at 1-877-WAR-VETS.
Despite our success expanding access to care and education, there is much work to be done to fix the backlog of compensation claims. It is unacceptable. First, we need to understand why the backlog has grown. After 10 years, we have ended one war and are winding down another. We have more Veterans returning home with severe and complex injuries from the battlefield. In addition, this Administration has dramatically expanded access to benefits for Veterans suffering from Agent Orange to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Gulf War Illness. Our Veterans earned these benefits, but by increasing access, we have also contributed to the backlog.
That is why we are implementing a robust plan to fix the problem. At the same time, the VA has completed over 4.1 million claims since 2009 and provided over $58 billion in disability compensation to 4.3 million Veterans and their survivors in 2012 alone — about $150 million every day. At no time in our history have our Veterans received more direct compensation payments.
Under Secretary Shinseki’s leadership, VA has improved the lives of millions of Veterans. That is the mission of VA’s 300,000 employees, over 100,000 of which are Veterans themselves. Our Nation benefits most when led by selfless public servants like Secretary Shinseki, who get up and go to work every day doing what’s right for our military, our Veterans, their families and survivors.
Tommy Sowers is the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.