Each time I have the privilege of meeting the heroes who wore our nation’s uniform, I am reminded they represent the very best of America. From World War II and Korea, to Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, we would not be the nation we are today without those who served.
Veterans Day is an important time to pause and give thanks to the men and women, most of whom we will never personally know, who sacrificed on our behalf.
However, this Veterans Day should also serve as a call to action for our nation’s leaders. Veterans have done their duty and kept their promise to protect our way of life. It is now up to us to fulfill our promise to them and remain committed to honoring their service.
At a recent roundtable meeting in Oldsmar, I gathered with dozens of local veterans and veterans service organizations to talk about what needs to be done to improve care through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). I heard from them about the lengthy wait-times for appointments, the confusing bureaucracy, and the general lack of communication and transparency. It is not only happening in the Tampa Bay area, either. As vice-chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I hear about it happening all over the country, and it is simply unacceptable.
I carry this mission to help veterans with me when I go to work in Congress every day. In the House, we have made good progress this past year on legislation to promote accountability and transparency at the VA, as well as expand care and services for veterans.
Congress passed, and the president signed into law, legislation I introduced to combat opioid abuse among veterans. My provision, the PROMISE ACT, will improve the VA’s opioid safety guidelines, and makes sure that those veterans who are prescribed opioids are provided safe, personalized care.
Also signed into law this year was my bill, the COVER Act. This legislation expands veterans’ access to alternative treatment for mental health services through the VA, like service dog therapy, outdoor sports therapy, and more. I am very proud these two pieces of legislation are now the law of the land, and will help veterans as they deal with their physical and invisible wounds, but there is much work to be done.
First, we need to do better to help give veterans who are returning home the tools they need to rejoin the workforce, and find housing and education. The military spends on average six-12 months preparing our soldiers for their assignment and deployment, and yet we only spend three to five days preparing them to reintegrate to civilian life. Making sure veterans have a robust support system for returning home would help with a whole host of problems like homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse.
Next, we need to change the culture at the VA so that veterans come first. While there are many well-intentioned, hardworking employees at the VA, there are also many who accept mediocrity as the standard. There are many at the agency who seem to forget they are serving the very individuals who served the country.
Poor performing managers at the VA need to be held accountable. Failed VA managers certainly should not be receiving bonuses, as we have seen happen, and they certainly should not be bounced around from facility to facility, as we also have seen happen.
If you or a loved one are experiencing difficulty in dealing with the VA, like problems making an appointment or getting an answer in a timely manner, please call my office at 727-232-2921 and we can help cut through some of the red tape. I have assisted almost 3,000 Veterans and their families from Florida’s 12th District with problems at the VA, and I will do everything I can to get results for you. I will continue to work hard in Congress to make sure veterans in Florida and around the country are getting the care and benefits they’ve earned.
This Veterans Day, let us renew our commitment to upholding the promises we’ve made to those who have served. We as a nation owe our freedom to the men and women who have worn our uniform.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District.