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Commentary: Honoring our commitment to veterans

On a recent Saturday, I had the opportunity to meet several veterans from northern Minnesota as they arrived in Washington, D.C. on an "Honor Flight."

These flights allow the men and women who have served in WW II, Korea and Vietnam to travel to the nation's capital to visit the memorials dedicated to their service.

In talking to these and other Minnesota veterans, I'm always struck by how much I learn about the profound sacrifices that they — and often their families - have made to defend our nation and its freedoms.

It's their stories that we honor again this year on Veterans Day, and it's their service and sacrifice that gives us reason to recommit our nation to keeping our promises to them.

Healing the scars of war

All too often, our veterans' sacrifices have come at a high cost to them and their families, and we've learned that their battles don't always end when they return home.

In the past 16 years, with the hard-earned experience of two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation has had to face the often-difficult challenges that come with helping tens of thousands of men and women return to civilian life.

Many have come home bearing the scars of war — mental and physical disabilities suffered while serving. In return for their service, they often want nothing more than the veterans benefits they were told would be there for them when they leave the military.

Unfortunately, we've not always been able to deliver those benefits quickly enough to the veterans who need them. Spurred by meetings with Minnesota veterans and leaders of our state's veterans groups, I'm pushing to change that.

Cutting wait times

In an effort to cut wait times at Veterans Administration (VA) health facilities, Congress passed the Veterans Choice program to allow veterans to see non-VA doctors closer to the community they live in.

Under this program, veterans can receive health care within their community, instead of waiting for a VA appointment or traveling long distances to a VA facility. However after hearing that the program wasn't delivering results, I have continued to press VA officials to take the steps necessary to make it more efficient and responsive to veterans' needs.

I'm also continuing my work to address the VA backlog that was forcing veterans to wait far too long for care. My legislation, introduced in March, would allow veterans needing VA care to see a local doctor for their initial examination instead of having to wait for an appointment at VA facility. It not only conserves VA resources and cuts back on long wait times at VA hospitals, but it also enables quicker diagnoses of disabilities, and eliminates unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities.

Fighting to expand veterans benefits

This year on Military Appreciation Day at the Minnesota State Fair, I was pleased to announce that my bipartisan measure to bring education benefits to Minnesota National Guard and Reserve members who served on active duty — and, in some cases, put themselves in harm's way — was being signed into law. The measure closed a loophole that left Minnesota Guard Members and Reservists without education benefits once they returned home. Now, veterans in Minnesota and across the country can use their GI Bill education benefits for their entire lives, instead of the current 15-year limit. And it ensures that all veterans wounded in action after 9/11 have full GI Bill eligibility.

I have also introduced a bipartisan bill, along with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to bring important health care benefits to "Atomic Veterans" who were exposed to high levels of harmful radiation when assigned to clean up nuclear testing sites during the late 1970s. Our bill would designate veterans who participated in the nuclear cleanup on the Marshall Islands as "radiation-exposed veterans," and make them eligible to receive the same health care and benefits given to other service members who were involved in active nuclear tests.

Honoring Service and Sacrifice

For the past seven years, I have had the opportunity and privilege to work with Major General Richard Nash, who retired this month as head of the Minnesota National Guard. He served Minnesota and his country with honor and distinction for 45 years in the Armed Forces. Twenty-nine of those years were in the National Guard. He's been a tireless advocate for the thousands of men and women who served under him, and a valuable advisor to me on military and veterans' issues. I wish General Nash well in his retirement.

I'll continue to listen to all Minnesota veterans and fight on their behalf in the U.S. Senate to ensure they have access to the VA benefits they were promised in return for the sacrifice and service. Keeping our promises will not only help ease a veteran's transition back into civilian life, but it will reflect the true meaning of Veterans Day.

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