Days after visiting our troops in Iraq, today the President unveiled a step to make sure that the gratitude he expressed to them – and to all who served before them – would not ring hollow. Before an audience of Wounded Warriors, he began his remarks commending Specialist Jake Altman and Sergeant Nathan Dewitt, two soldiers he met in Iraq who refused to let severe injuries stand between them and returning to their units. He singled out Tammy Duckworth, his nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who lost her legs in Iraq and came home to continue service as a vibrant advocate for veterans care. Having told the audience of his inspiration, he then went on to announce the policy at hand:
It's time to give our veterans a 21st-century VA. Over the past few months we've made much progress towards that end, and today I'm pleased to announce some new progress.
Under the leadership of Secretary Gates and Secretary Shinseki, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have taken a first step towards creating one unified lifetime electronic health record for members of our armed services that will contain their administrative and medical information -- from the day they first enlist to the day that they are laid to rest.
Currently, there is no comprehensive system in place that allows for a streamlined transition of health records between DOD and the VA. And that results in extraordinary hardship for a awful lot of veterans, who end up finding their records lost, unable to get their benefits processed in a timely fashion. I can't tell you how many stories that I heard during the course of the last several years, first as a United States senator and then as a candidate, about veterans who were finding it almost impossible to get the benefits that they had earned despite the fact that their disabilities or their needs were evident for all to see.
And that's why I'm asking both departments to work together to define and build a seamless system of integration with a simple goal: When a member of the Armed Forces separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DOD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever. (Applause.)
He went on to discuss his proposed budget, which includes the largest single-year increase in VA funding in three decades; an attempt to ensure veterans funding is never again caught up in appropriations politics; a dramatic expansion of coverage; an unprecedented effort to address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury; funding for a pilot program with not-for-profit organizations to make sure that veterans at risk of losing their homes have a roof over their heads; and finally, the implementation of the new GI Bill to ensure veterans can return to broad opportunity earned by their sacrifices.
Yesterday the Vice President spoke at the Welcome Home Ceremony for the XVIII Airborne Corps in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and captured the sentiment of today’s announcement well:
Ladies and gentlemen, if we only have $10 to spend in the entire federal government, then we are convinced that we have to spend six of it caring for those who come home in need. We will spend all six before we spend it on anything else -- on the elderly, on children, on the poor, on our roads, on our security -- because this is the only genuinely sacred obligation this nation has. The service that you and thousands and thousands of others who went before you in Iraq over the last six years -- the services you've performed have come at great cost for some. Some of our warriors and their families have paid a much steeper price than others. Some had given their lives, the ultimate sacrifice, and we honor their memory.
But the best way to honor their memory, of those thousands -- over 14,000 seriously injured coming home from the wars which we are engaged in and have been engaged in -- we owe them the obligation to -- we know we can never fully repay it, but we know we owe them the obligation to provide them the absolute best medical care and service they need. Some will need that for the rest of their lives. Their life expectancies will be 35 to 40 years, and some will need care for the entirety of those lives.