Every year, Veterans Day gives us a chance to pause and honor the sacrifices, courage, and patriotism of the men and women who have worn a military uniform. America is the land of opportunity and a beacon of hope and freedom to the rest of the world because our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen have fought valiantly to defeat tyranny and terror, and protect the liberties we hold most dear.
Whether they stormed the beaches of Normandy, fought in the jungles of Vietnam, or battled in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, our brave men and women in uniform have always put our country and values first. Over time, our enemies may have changed, but the heroism displayed by our military never has. Our troops have protected us and defended our national security repeatedly and consistently, and they deserve our gratitude. As the son and grandson of World War II and World War I veterans, this is a personal and solemn obligation. Columbus, Ohio has a tradition of paying tribute to our veterans with a wonderful parade through the city streets the Friday before Veterans Day. I was honored to be a part of it this year, including riding in an Army Willys Jeep with military historian Warren Motts, and an inspirational WWII veteran and pilot, Mike Pohorilla.
We must always recognize and respect the service of those who keep us safe — not just on one day but every day. Nothing is more powerful than going to our military hospitals and visiting injured troops and their families. In dozens of visits in hospital rooms, when expressing all of our thanks for their sacrifices in Iraq or Afghanistan, I have consistently heard the same response: I was just doing my duty and it is an honor to serve. In my work with great organizations that help our wounded warriors, including Team River Runner and Ride to Recovery, that use kayaking and bicycling as a part of recovery, I am also constantly inspired.
Currently, there are about twenty-two million veterans in America, with almost one million of them living here in Ohio. While we are right to rejoice when our loved ones return home, we must remember that veterans often face a different battle when trying to reclaim their civilian lives. As I travel the state, I am reminded that not all battle scars are visible, and we must ensure that we provide the same level of quality care to all our servicemembers, whether they are suffering from the physical or psychological wounds of war.
A significant number of those returning to civilian life suffer from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and other behavioral health conditions and, sadly, far too many are not receiving the proper care they deserve. These conditions can lead to family strife, trouble holding down a job, or in some extreme cases, suicide. Our veterans fought for us during some of our nation’s most difficult challenges and now we must fight for them. To help address these issues, I introduced the Medical Evaluation Parity for Servicemembers (MEPS) Act, legislation that will improve the way the military identifies and assesses mental health issues by ensuring that servicemembers receive appropriate mental health screenings at entry and exit from service. Important parts of this bill are included in the current Defense Authorization Act that I hope the President will sign.
Another challenge is to ensure the VA provides our veterans with the best the health care system has to offer. I supported the bipartisan effort to expand choices for veterans, including allowing access to private healthcare systems when there is no appropriate VA facility in their area. Based on my conversations with veterans, including input from a tele-town hall I held just last week, this new flexibility is helping some veterans, but others are still having trouble getting access to the specialized care they need.
At the numerous town hall meetings I’ve held for veterans all across the state, the issue I heard most about is the time it takes to process a disability claim. Unbelievably, in many cases it can take well over a year. That’s not good enough. I have requested that the Department of Veterans Affairs provide monthly accountability reports nationally, in an effort to reduce the amount of waiting time and eliminate the unacceptable backlog. Our soldiers didn’t hesitate to answer their nation’s call to service; we should not be making them wait for the answers and the help they deserve. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to help cut through the bureaucracy and get results for veterans. Whether it is health care, disability reviews, or other issues, please fill out my form to request assistance under “constituent services” at Portman.senate.gov if you think you or a veteran you know needs help.
Our obligation to our veterans goes beyond proper healthcare or disability decisions, however. We also need to do more to help our returning service men and women come home to jobs and opportunity. As employers look at stacks of resumes and we work to close the skills gap in our economy, we must remember the invaluable experience and skills that veterans bring to the workforce.
Whether their military background is in radio communications, heavy equipment operations, IT, law enforcement or leadership roles to motivate others to accomplish a specific mission, these men and women deserve a special chance. Today’s military commanders tell me we have the finest military ever: young Americans have proven that they can successfully make the transition from citizen to soldier. Now it is all of our jobs to do more to help them go from soldier to mechanic, student, software engineer, police officer, or whatever path they set their hearts on. I will continue to support efforts that help our veterans build the future they deserve.
On this Veterans Day, let’s remember to thank those who served. We thank them for their selflessness, their sacrifice and bravery, and for the part they played in advancing the cause of freedom and peace. We are a better nation because of their service.
Rob Portman is a Republican U.S. Senator from Ohio.