Dec. 16 Victory for Veterans: Wounded Warrior Bill Passes Senate, Goes to White House

December 14, 2007 – WASHINGTON , D.C. – In a speech today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) congratulated her colleagues for keeping their commitment to our service members and veterans by passing the Defense Authorization bill.  The bill includes the Wounded Warriors Act, which the Senate passed earlier this year to address the poor conditions and bureaucratic red tape some service members were experiencing while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other facilities after being wounded at war.

Murray said the passage of this bill is a true victory for the service members and veterans who will see much-needed improvements as a result.

“This is a major step toward real change,” Murray said.  “By passing the Wounded Warriors Act, we are moving aggressively to make sure that these men and women are treated well when they come home.  This bill provides real solutions for our troops and veterans from the battlefield to the VA and everywhere in between.”

The Wounded Warriors Act lays out a clear path directing the Defense Department and the VA to address shortfalls in the care of our wounded warriors.

It requires the Defense Department and VA to work together to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent, treat and diagnose TBI and PTSD.

It creates DoD centers of excellence for TBI and PTSD to improve our understanding of these devastating injuries.

It directs the two agencies to develop a joint electronic health record so that critical medical files aren’t lost as our wounded troops move from battlefield doctors, to medicals holds, and on to the VA.

The act requires the military and the VA to work together on disability ratings.  This is the first step toward bridging the gap between the VA and the Defense Department.

And it requires the military to adopt the VA presumption that a disease or an injury is service-connected when our heroes – who were healthy prior to service – have spent six months or more on active duty.

The bill also addresses many of the conditions that our troops found themselves in at Walter Reed and other facilities.  It ensures our service members get adequate severance pay.  And it can provide medical care for the families of recovering service members.

The full text of Senator Murray’s floor remarks on Wounded Warriors follows:

Madam President, the Defense Authorization bill before us today includes vital military programs that will help keep our nation safe and secure. 

I’ve come to the floor to highlight a section of this legislation that’s especially important to me because it will make a huge difference in the lives of our service members and veterans – the Wounded Warriors Act.

Madam President, the Wounded Warriors Act has already passed the Senate once on its own.  To ensure it passed Congress this year, it was added to this Defense bill, too.  I’m optimistic today that we can pass this bill and get these much-needed improvements to our troops and our veterans soon.  This is a major step toward real change.

This Bill Makes Important Changes for our Service Members

Madam President, I want to talk about how we got to this point, and why this bill is so necessary.

This February, the Washington Post stunned us all with a series of articles on the squalid conditions and bureaucratic incompetence some of our service members were living with at Walter Reed Army Medical Center .

I’m proud that Democrats led an aggressive effort in the Senate to reach across the aisle and craft legislation to address these problems.  The Wounded Warriors Act we have now is the result of a historic partnership between two of our committees – the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Akaka, and the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senator Levin.  I want to thank both Senators for their leadership on this. 

The Scope of the Needs

Madam President, the more we dug for information, the more we learned about the huge problems we need to address.  Last winter, when I visited Walter Reed with our Leadership team, the service members we talked to weren’t just frustrated with their living conditions.  They had reached the end of their patience trying to navigate a disability system, which made absolutely no sense to them – or to us.

And the problem wasn’t limited to service members at Walter Reed.  When I went home and met with service members in medical hold in Washington state – more than 200 people showed up.  They, too, were angry and frustrated with their situation. 

They told me story after story about how they had to struggle to get their disability ratings and fight for the care they needed.  Other service members told us that they’ve had to struggle to get the right diagnosis for their injuries – particularly Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Democrats Said, ‘No More’

As a result of our investigation, Madam President, Democrats said, “No more.”  The Wounded Warriors Act is the result.  It lays out a clear path directing the Defense Department and the VA to address shortfalls in the care of our wounded warriors.

It requires the DoD and the VA research and develop a comprehensive plan to prevent, treat and diagnose TBI and PTSD.  It also requires the two agencies to begin bridging the gap between them so that our troops no longer get lost in red tape as they transition from the military to the VA.

Veterans’ Care

In addition to the Wounded Warriors Act, the Defense Authorization bill includes important provisions passed by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. 

These provisions will help turn around some of the key issues we’ve seen at the VA by stepping up access to mental health care and extending – from two to five years – the period in which recent combat veterans qualify for VA health benefits.

Democrats Moved Aggressively to Pass This Bill

Madam President, I’ve said consistently that no matter how you feel about the war, we have an obligation as leaders to make sure that our men and women who fight for us get the care they deserve.

I’m particularly proud of the way Democrats moved to address the problems facing our returning service members.  This bill provides real solutions for our troops and veterans from the battlefield to the VA and everywhere in between.

Peake Nomination

Madam President, I also want to take a moment to say a few words about the nomination of General James Peake to be the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. 
On Thursday, I joined my colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and voted in favor of his nomination.  As you know, there has been a leadership vacuum at the head of the VA for years now.  And – for the reasons I’ve already laid out today – we need someone strong to lead the agency as we work to change course there. 

While I believe we shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes of the past, I believe we must learn from them. 

At his confirmation hearing, General Peake pledged to stand up and put the needs of veterans above the political needs of the White House.  He can guarantee that I will hold him to his word – because we owe our troops nothing less.

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