By Rep. Nick J. Rahall
Nearly five years ago, with my support, the Congress enacted the Wounded Warrior Act, recognizing the needs and our obligations to the men and women wounded in service to our nation. This monumental piece of legislation represents a number of innovative and comprehensive efforts, encompassing an overarching desire to do better in caring for our soldiers who have sacrificed so much for us.
Under the previous administration, the American people were horrified and angered to learn of the travesties occurring at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., which has long been recognized as the flagship of military care. Wounded warriors were subjected to indecent living conditions, negligence, and, in the worst cases, sexual abuse. The horrendous conditions forced upon our military veterans were a national disgrace, and I immediately took action in order to improve the quality of life for our wounded veterans.
The Wounded Warrior Act, which passed in 2008 and I strongly supported, took an all-inclusive approach to addressing veterans’ needs. It increased the number of years a wounded warrior may receive disability severance pay; allowed a wounded warrior to receive disability pay and VA disability compensation simultaneously; and, removed bureaucratic barriers to wounded warriors receiving the care and compensation they earned on the battlefield. The Congress directed that the changes outlined in the bill be implemented immediately, and so, to enforce these changes, I supported objective standards to scrupulously evaluate the services provided to our wounded warriors. Truly, the Wounded Warriors Act was a monumental effort to honor our veterans.
I am very proud of the progress our nation has made in caring for our wounded warriors. Nevertheless, so much more work remains to be done.
Our veterans suffer wounds in combat that are not always physical. The Secretary of the Department of Defense has labeled suicide in the military an “epidemic.” The 2012 West Virginia Veteran Study sponsored by the West Virginia Legislature states one-fifth of our state’s veterans are at a “significant risk” of committing suicide. To put that figure into perspective, according to the 2010 Census there are nearly 171,000 veterans living in West Virginia, which means that 34,000 veterans in our state are at risk of taking their own lives. Additionally, half of all veterans in West Virginia under the age of 50 show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or both.
In the past few years, improvements have been made in the area of mental health treatment. As a senior member of both the Mental Health Caucus and Military Veterans Caucus, I have supported initiatives that increase the accessibility of mental health services and work to reduce the stigma wrongly associated with seeking treatment for a mental illness. Additionally, I have fought to secure federal funding to increase the number of mental health professionals in southern West Virginia. All of my work on behalf of these initiatives is with the support of my fellow West Virginians, who revere our state’s veterans. I know I am not alone when I say that more must be done.
Five years ago, our nation was at the height of battles in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military personnel encountered enemies using a variety of tactics — improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombings, indiscriminate terrorist attacks — to inflict the most injury and damage possible on our troops and inspire fear. And yet, our nation’s men and women in uniform continued to answer the call of duty.
As Americans, we must continue to answer our call of duty in providing our veterans and their families with the care they have earned and deserve through continual sacrifice.
As a nation, we have a responsibility to honor and remember our veterans. These men and women have donned uniforms and put themselves in harm’s way for us. They have fought to preserve our freedoms and secure our futures. We owe them so much, the least of which being the benefits and care that they were promised in return for their military service.
I will strive always to ensure that we repay that solemn debt.
(Rahall represents West Virginia’s 3rd District.)