As we prepare to return to our home states, I believe it is important to remind our colleagues about the work we have done for the veterans of this Nation. As Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I have had the privilege of working with almost every entity and level of government, veterans' and military service organizations across the Nation, and every branch of the military, in an ongoing effort to better serve those who have served us.
In the past 19 months, the Committee has held over 50 hearings, taking testimony from over 320 witnesses. Committee staff have carried out over 140 days of investigations and visits across the country. I commend the hard-working Members of our Committee, on both sides of the aisle, for their work this Session.
After years of underfunding veterans' programs, I wish to remind everyone that this Congress appropriated the largest increase in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs. These funds are helping to provide better health care to veterans and enabling the Veterans Benefits Administration to hire thousands of new employees. It is my profound hope that this investment will produce marked improvements in care and a reduced backlog of veterans' disability claims.
Last year, in connection with disclosures about Walter Reed, America learned of the disgraceful treatment of some of our disabled servicemembers and veterans. Congress responded promptly and the Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs Committees collaborated in an unprecedented manner to address the issues at Walter Reed and elsewhere. One result of this cooperation was the wounded warrior provisions included in last year's National Defense Authorization Act.
I take special pride in one particular wounded warrior provision, which more than doubled the period of automatic VA health care eligibility for returning troops.
Servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are now eligible for five years of VA health care upon separation from service. I am also pleased with the work we have done in seeking an expanded outreach to veterans of the National Guard and Reserve. It is vital that the growing role they play in our all-volunteer military be recognized and that those who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan be recognized and helped.
Congress also enacted the 21st Century GI Bill of Rights. Like others who served in World War II, I personally know how that GI Bill changed our country for the better. I hope this improved benefit will provide similar help - for today's and tomorrow's troops.
But for all we have done, much remains unfinished in these waning weeks. Important legislation is pending in both the House and the Senate. To name just two bills, we are still waiting for action on S. 1315 and S. 2162.
S. 1315, the Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007, would provide needed assistance to veterans young and old, including to the Filipino veterans of World War II who served under U.S. command but were denied veterans status for over sixty years.
S. 2162 is the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008. This bill responds to the growing need among veterans for high quality mental health care. Many veterans return from war suffering from invisible wounds.
If left untreated, these wounds can infect a veteran's life and livelihood, with dire consequences. The bill represents a tribute to Justin Bailey, a young Iraq veteran who overdosed while under VA care. We must not let other veterans suffer a similar tragedy.
Both of these bills passed the Senate with unanimous or nearly-unanimous support, and both count strong supporters in the House. I hope that before this Session ends, we will see both become law.
I do not report today that our work for veterans is any where near done. But I do say that it is a work in progress. I thank my colleagues in both chambers and both parties for their support and cooperation.
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