As Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I have had the privilege of going to Iraq this year with Idaho Congressmen Mike Simpson and Butch Otter. Joining us on that trip was the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson. (To see pictures, click on: Iraq trip.)
It was an honor to meet our troops and visit with the American men and women serving there. It was a special treat for me to meet those from Idaho, to share with them my concerns about their immediate welfare and my concerns about their long-term needs as veterans.
They, and every veteran, deserve our thanks and appreciation this Veterans Day.
In Kirkuk we saw Idahoans carrying out a variety of missions to provide stability and train Iraqis. Our Idaho soldiers earned the praises of their superiors ? and most importantly ? the praise of the local Iraqi people.
While in Baghdad, we became the first members of Congress to meet with the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. We expressed to him the importance of quickly, but responsibly, putting a stable security force and functioning government in place to meet the needs of Iraqis and deal the terrorists yet another defeat.
We also had the opportunity to see the Combat Support Hospital and the immediate, top-level medical treatment our troops receive. Because of that quick, high quality care, 90 percent of American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive ? a dramatic improvement from World War II when 30 percent died from their wounds.
After Iraq, Secretary Nicholson and I, along with Congressmen Otter and Simpson, traveled to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and met with wounded warriors and staff at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. We went to examine the transition from the battlefield, and I was impressed with the medical skill and expertise available to our service men and women.
We were told that as we met in the morning, those who would be treated there that night had not yet been wounded in Iraq. Such rapid, high quality treatment is saving countless lives, but those seriously wounded today require us to redouble our efforts to see that they, and other veterans, receive the highest quality care we can provide.
I'm pleased to report that the horrors of derelict veteran's hospitals, like that depicted in the Tom Cruise movie ?Born on the 4th of July,? are a thing of the past. Today the military and VA hospitals are ranked among the best nation.
Evidence of that great health care was evident to me this past year when I met Tammy Duckworth, a young woman who was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq when a rocket propelled grenade blasted into the cockpit. Although she lost both legs, she remained conscious as she and her co-pilot landed the damaged aircraft.
Tammy came to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs about the care she received and the needs of many veterans like her. Amazingly, Tammy is determined to pilot helicopters again. Given today's modern miracles with prosthetics, I have no doubt that she will be flying again. (To see pictures of the hearing, click on: Tammy Duckworth hearing.)
After meeting with Tammy, I later met with three younger veterans, all in their early 20s, who also made me proud to be an American, and who put another lump in my throat.
Ryan Kelly, from Prescott, Arizona, lost a leg in Iraq. Heath Calhoun, from Clarksville, Tennessee, lost both of his legs. Jeremy Feldbusch from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, lost his sight. They explained the financial difficulties they faced with long recuperation times, and wives and family members who gave up jobs to be near them as they were in hospital rehab. (To see pictures of these young men, see: Wounded Warrior project members.)
They sought legislation not to help themselves, but to help others. I was inspired by their courage and selflessness. Only a few weeks later, Congress approved legislation I authored, which will provide anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 to our nation's ?Wounded Warriors? to offset the costs families incur when they have to leave jobs and homes to be with loved ones who are recuperating at military hospitals. As a bonus, an amendment to my legislation makes the payments retroactive to the start of the war in Afghanistan.
On this Veterans Day, my first as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I'm pleased to report that Ryan, Heath, Tammy and Jeremy, and other young veterans with serious injuries like them, will all benefit. Their checks should be sent out before this Christmas.
May God bless them, and may God bless those who still serve in harm's way.