Last Wednesday morning, I made my way through a packed auditorium at Perdido School in north Baldwin County to shake the hands of veterans who had admirably served our nation. The veterans were present for a ceremony in their honor organized by the teachers and students at the school.
The students waved flags and held up handmade signs. It was great to see young people so enthusiastic in recognizing and honoring our veterans who have served their country. Everyone in that auditorium had a special veteran in their life who immediately came to mind during the ceremony.
For me, it is my brother Dale, who served a lengthy career in the Alabama National Guard. Dale rose from the rank of Private to Command Sergeant Major and served in various conflicts, including the Gulf War. Dale was well respected by his comrades and received many honors including the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Expedition Medal. He passed away last October after a lengthy illness, but I will forever remember his dedication and sacrifice for our country.
There are countless other American heroes, just like Dale, who the ceremony at Perdido School was designed to honor. But the ceremony led me to wonder: are we doing enough as a nation to support and protect those who have given so much to our nation?
We all remember earlier this year when abuse and mismanagement in the VA system was brought to the forefront. Veterans were being placed on secret waiting lists, VA staff was forging medical records, and leadership was severely lacking. The VA scandal hit home right here in Alabama with some of the most egregious activity taking place at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery.
This series of stories opened our eyes to a real culture of complacency which plagues the entire VA system from top to bottom. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced out and replaced with former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald. Secretary McDonald has serious challenges ahead of him, but he has made some progress at restoring trust in the VA system.
Congress also got involved to help ensure that our veterans receive the medical care and attention they deserve. We increased funding to allow for the hiring of more medical staff and much-needed improvements to VA facilities. More importantly, we passed legislation that allows veterans to receive medical care at local, non-VA facilities when the wait time is more than 30 days or the nearest VA facility is more than 40 miles away. We improved accountability to make it easier to fire senior VA officials and ended unmerited bonuses to VA employees.
The recent reforms alone will not fully address all the challenges facing our veterans. From countering veterans’ homelessness to helping veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder to promoting veterans education programs, more work is certainly needed.
In fact, every day my staff assists veterans who are struggling with their healthcare or who need help receiving their earned benefits. I consider this one of the most important and rewarding parts of my job. If you or someone you know is having problems with the VA, please encourage them to contact my office.
Those young children at Perdido School recognized the great sacrifices veterans made and continue to make in defense of the freedoms we all hold dear. It’s now my job to never yield in our efforts to improve the quality of care and programs for those who have served our nation. The federal government must work for our nation’s veterans, not against them.
Bradley Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives