On Monday, we celebrate our country’s 235rd birthday, and the freedoms and values upon which it was built. And, while the Fourth of July is a great time for family and parades, picnics and flag ceremonies, it’s also a time to take stock of our American values.
For example, Monday is an opportunity for Americans to come together and remember those in uniform who sacrifice daily on behalf of our country in the name of freedom and democracy. The debt we owe them is immeasurable. Their sacrifices and those of their families are freedom’s foundation. Without the brave efforts of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen — and their families — our country would not live so freely.
On this Independence Day, let us start by honoring the memory of the nearly 6,000 Americans who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nearly 50,000 who have been wounded in those conflicts. And as we remember those patriotic sacrifices, we must renew our commitment to the nation’s more than 2 million troops and reservists, their families and 23 million veterans, including more than 40,000 here in the 23rd Congressional District.
That’s why I was proud when Congress in 2007 enacted the largest increase in veterans’ funding in the 77-year history of the Veterans Affairs Department. It’s also why I’ve promoted policies in Congress to modernize and streamline health care systems within the VA, like reducing wait times for veterans with pending health claims.
Congress also improved and expanded educational opportunities for veterans by enacting the Post-9/11 GI Bill — the most extensive educational assistance program authorized since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944. The new GI Bill, which marks its third anniversary this week, allows eligible veterans who served at least 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, to receive an in-state, undergraduate education at a public institution at no cost.
This law is already helping many of our neighbors on the Central and South Coasts. For example, a veteran from Santa Maria recently expressed to me how valuable the Post 9/11 GI Bill was for him and his future. He wrote that he had assumed his nearly seven years of experience as an officer in the Air Force would help him to find a job. Sadly, that was not the case. So he used the opportunity to study public policy at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. And, as a result, he found a job working for a high-tech firm that supports operations at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He told me the Post 9/11 GI Bill gives veterans an opening “to get valuable education or training and compete in this global job market.”
But there is more that we can and must do. We have to enact the Hiring for Heroes Act — which takes major steps to help our women and men in uniform obtain good jobs when they come home. With nearly one-in-four young veterans unemployed, this critical legislation would strengthen much-needed training programs for separating service members. And it would encourage businesses and government contractors to hire the brave men and women who have developed valuable skills and professionalism while in the armed forces. The bill is strongly supported by a broad array of veterans’ organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, because they know it would smooth the transition for our returning troops and put them on the path to success.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be pushing for a vote on this vital legislation. I’ll also continue my work to provide our troops and veterans the benefits they have earned and resources they need, including helping those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and reducing the number of suicides among veterans. And, I’ll keep pushing for more tax incentives for companies that hire veterans and for assistance to veteran-owned businesses on the Central and South Coasts.
On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. On this Independence Day, let it be our pledge that we leave no veteran behind. On the Fourth of July, and every day, let us honor their service with actions that fulfill our commitment to our troops, our veterans and their families.