My Turn: We must seek new ways to improve veterans’ lives
His name is Jon Worrall, but everyone calls him Chief. He’s one of America’s best – a veteran of the Army, Navy and Air National Guard who courageously fought for our country in Vietnam and Iraq. When he returned home, he had traumatic brain injury, severe PTSD and serious physical injuries. But, as he explained to me, Chief never complains about his ailments; instead, he focuses on what he can do to help other veterans overcome their own wounds.
I met Chief this month while spending some time touring New Hampshire’s beautiful North Country. When I first heard Chief’s story, I knew I had to meet him – because what he’s done for his fellow Granite State veterans is the kind of inspiring but common-sense project that can have a real impact for men and women returning from combat.
Chief had set out to build a retirement home in Pittsburg for himself and his wife when he realized that the crisp air and pristine natural beauty surrounding his camp could help heal other veterans’ physical and psychological war wounds. That’s how Wounded Warriors @45 North was born – this selfless soldier opened up his own home as a privately funded retreat for wounded veterans to recuperate. The retreat is open to veterans – free of charge – from all across the state, from Concord to Pittsburg and everywhere in between. 45 North gives them a place not only to heal physically, but also to meet other veterans who have suffered similar experiences, so they can reap the psychological benefits of camaraderie and a respite in the wilderness.
As a member of the U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I hear every day from Granite State veterans about the incredibly difficult transition back to civilian life. Chief’s work is exactly the kind of action we should all be proactively taking for our veterans – not impeding access to important recovery and support services.
When my committee uncovered secret wait lists and extreme mismanagement at VA Medical Centers across the country, I was horrified. Instead of providing quality care, these centers actually prevented veterans from receiving medical attention. With no time to waste, I was one of the first members of Congress to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation, and I pushed for a full, nationwide audit to immediately eradicate all mismanagement.
I also convened roundtables with New Hampshire Veteran Service Organizations and local veterans to hear directly about their experiences here at home. As it turns out, our veterans have been fortunate to receive – for the most part – great care from local VA centers. The problem is less about quality, and more about access.
I fought hard for new VA clinics in Colebrook and Berlin, so North Country veterans would no longer have to drive long distances (sometimes over 100 miles!) for care. I’m thrilled these clinics will be opening soon. But we still must work to ensure every veteran in every corner of the Granite State can get immediate care when they need it.
That’s why I pushed for comprehensive reforms that were ultimately included in the VA reform bill signed into law by the president this month. One of the reforms I fought hard for was a veterans choice card, which allows veterans who live more than 20 miles away from a full-service VA medical center (like the vast majority of Granite State veterans) to go to a private facility to receive care.
But we can’t stop there. These steps merely fix what was already damaged. What we really need to do is come together as a community and follow the lead of courageous individuals like Chief, who go out of their way to make every veteran’s transition back to civilian life a successful one.
Not only should our veterans have easy access to medical care, but also to the benefits they earned and rightfully deserve. That’s why I helped introduce a package of legislation to completely eliminate the VA claims backlog by 2015.
Not only should our veterans easily receive their benefits, they must also receive any skill-training needed to re-enter our workforce. That’s why I’ve hosted a series of job fairs around the district, and I’ve helped introduce legislation to expand job-training programs to help veterans prepare for the 21st century economy.
Now it’s time for my colleagues in Congress to put aside party politics and come together as a community to immediately pass into law these and other bills that help our nation’s veterans succeed.
My father served as a fighter pilot in World War II and was a POW for six months after being shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. I know firsthand what veterans like Chief and their families go through. As a community, we must follow Chief’s lead and instead of just focusing on fixes, we must find new ways to proactively support our veterans – so when our veterans come home after fighting to protect our land of freedom and opportunity, they themselves can access that opportunity and pursue their own American dreams.
(Congresswoman Annie Kuster is serving her first term representing the residents of New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District. She is a member of the U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.)