Caring For Families of Wounded Warriors (Sen. Daniel Akaka)
March 12th, 2008
War outlasts itself. It extends beyond the boundaries of the battlefield, and its consequences remain in the lives our servicemen and women, long after they have returned home. We know this to be true, but little attention is given to what happens within the homes of these veterans.
With that in mind, today I convened a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to bring attention to the topic of caring for the families of wounded warriors. The question of how the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs can better support the families that care for wounded veterans has not received enough consideration. In many cases, the family members do not ask this question, as they are occupied with caring and advocating for their loved one, leaving little time to advocate for themselves or think about their own needs.
As policymakers, my colleagues and I should be asking these families what we can do to help, and that is what we did at today's hearing. We heard from three very special witnesses, each with their own compelling story about how VA and DOD helped, or did not help, as they took on the tremendous responsibility of caring for their injured loved one. Two fathers described the personal and financial demands that came with caring for their sons, both of whom are struggling to recover from traumatic brain injuries. A wife described how her husband returned from Iraq looking fine from the outside, while he waged a war inside himself to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Slowly but surely, this war overflowed into the life of this veterans' wife, son, and others around them.
As I discussed these issues with the witnesses, I could not help but consider the larger context of today's hearing. This wartime Congress finds our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with unmet needs, and oftentimes their unprepared families find both the DoD and VA health care and benefits systems cumbersome and bureaucratic. Here at home, far too many veterans from these and previous conflicts feel they must battle the government they served for the care and benefits they have earned. This week Congress debates the federal budget, which, as proposed by President George W. Bush, would place unacceptable limitations on the government's ability to serve veterans.
In response, under the leadership of Chairman Conrad of the Budget Committee, Congress is poised to provide VA with another historic funding increase. Last year, we allocated $6.7 billion for VA health care over the previous year. This week, we are considering a budget resolution that would provide $3.2 billion more than what the President requested for VA. This is the first step in getting veterans and service members the care that they need, by ensuring the system has the resources to provide that care.
Alongside questions of funding, Congress is considering legislation to address the types of wounds sustained in the current conflicts, such as PTSD. One urgent piece of legislation that addresses both PTSD and other "invisible wounds of war," as well as support for veterans' families, is S. 2162, the Mental Health Improvements Act of 2007. I am proud to have introduced this bill, which has the support of Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC), and has been reported favorably by the Committee.
Among other provisions, the Mental Health Improvements Act would provide support not just for afflicted veterans, but to the families that in turn support them. I am hopeful that this bill, as well as many other veterans' bills, can be debated and voted upon before the close of the 110th Congress.
VA has taken on the words of President Abraham Lincoln as their motto, promising to care for those "who shall have borne the battle." I submit that the cost of war is paid disproportionately not only by our troops and veterans, but by their families. These families bear the burden of the battle as well, and we must not forget that.
By Hawaii Dem. Sen. Daniel Akaka