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Supporting, caring for America's veterans

By By Jo Bonner
During the August district work period, I have had the opportunity to visit with many of you in southwest Alabama. As I've said several times in the past, one of the best parts of this job is visiting with my constituents and getting their opinions and ideas on what's going on in Washington.
This August has certainly been no exception, and I have had several events that are both productive and informative. I spent the first weekend of the month in Iraq, and this past week I went to the United States border in Texas to witness how the flood of illegal immigration is affecting our society. Both of these trips are in addition to a full slate of office appointments.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, I have begun holding telephone town hall meetings. Many of you have taken the opportunity to ask some good questions about events currently unfolding here in Alabama and in Washington, D.C.
The questions and comments I received were invaluable, and I will certainly keep them all in mind as I work with my colleagues in the House of Representatives in the coming weeks and months.
Of particular interest to many was the issue of care for our veterans. In light of the recent news regarding a second computer containing sensitive veterans' data being stolen, allow me to take a few minutes to provide you with an update on funding for veterans' programs.
Since 1930, when President Herbert Hoover signed Executive Order 5398 establishing the Veterans Administration (VA) to provide care and services for America's veterans, the size of our veterans' population and the scope of necessary services have increased dramatically. In fact, when the VA was created, there were 4.7 million veterans and 54 veterans' hospitals.
By the end of 2004, the number of veterans living in the United States increased to 24.8 million-with 426,000 in Alabama alone. Over the past decade, the VA has transformed the health care system to include over 600 health facilities, including medical centers, nursing homes, and hundreds of community-based outpatient clinics.
The House of Representatives has been working diligently on behalf of veterans throughout the 109th Congress. The House has increased veterans spending by 18 percent, an increase of $12 billion, to approximately $78 billion for fiscal year 2007. Veterans medical care funding has increased by 16 percent as well as a 6.3 percent increase for mental health care. The House has passed provisions increasing the cost of living for veterans and survivor benefits by 2.6 percent in fiscal year 2007.
Additional accomplishments in support of veterans include:
Enacting the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibits demonstrations at military funerals held at national cemeteries.
Boosting GI bill benefits 59 percent since 2001
Doubling VA home loan guarantees. In 2004, Congress increased the maximum VA home loan guarantee to $417,000, an increase of more than 70 percent.
Increasing Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and Veterans' Group Life Insurance (VGLI) to $400,000 in 2005.
Enacting the $22 billion concurrent receipt benefit. In 2004, Congress approved a concurrent receipt benefit for veterans to provide over $22 billion to more than 250,000 disabled military retirees over the next 10 years. Effective January 2005, a retiree rated 100 percent service-connected can receive their VA disability and military retirement benefits concurrently.
Spending to assist our veterans has more than doubled since 1995. In fact, spending has increased from an average of $923 per veteran in 1984 to more than $2,934 per veteran in 2006.
Out of the hundreds of letters received in my office each week, many are from veterans who express disappointment and frustration over the fact they don't feel they are receiving the treatment and care they were promised when first enlisting.
Whether it is difficulties in having a claim for benefits approved, gaining admission to a veterans' hospital for treatment or having their college tuition paid through the GI bill, there is often a sense that they are being forgotten and left behind by a country for which they sacrificed so much.
As a member of Congress, I can help in two ways. First, I work with individuals experiencing specific problems with the VA and cut through the "red tape" to try and get the benefits they deserve or the consideration they need.
Secondly, I play a role on the national stage. I work through the legislative process to ensure that our current veterans and their dependents, along with the thousands of men and women who will serve in the years ahead, receive the support they need.
Our veterans have sacrificed so much in their lives and given their all for this great nation. They should expect no less in return.
My staff and I work for you. If we can ever be of service, do not hesitate to call my office toll free at 1-800-288-8721 or visit my website at http://bonner.house.gov.
Jo Bonner is a U.S. congressman. His column appears weekly.