Floor and Committee Statements

“Mr. President, before the Senator from Montana leaves, I wish to thank him for 3 years of dedicated service and the last two in particular, as we put together the pieces of shrapnel--which was the original attempt to make Choice work--to be a streamlined program that is going to work for all of our veterans.

“Jon Tester has been a magnificent ranking member and a magnificent leader. I appreciate very much the kind things he had to say about me, and I say ditto to you.

“I also thank Chairman Phil Roe, of Tennessee, in the House of Representatives. He has been a stalwart.

“The reason we are able to act today and tomorrow--as the House did last week--and pass a bill before Memorial Day is because both bodies have worked together, and the votes have been overwhelming. Our motion to invoke cloture this morning was 91 to 4. The House passed this 3 to 1 when they passed it in final passage.

“So obviously there was a lot of unanimity, but that should not be a disguise for the effort it took. It took a lot of effort to get to where we are and a lot of people doing that effort--a lot of Republicans, a lot of Democrats, a lot of staff.

“There was a tremendous amount of staff time. We went from doing the art of the impossible to making the art of the possible, with everybody working together, leaving our political weapons at the door, and putting our good heads together to make the Veterans' Administration system better for our veterans.

“My speech is not going to be long because Senator Moran and Senator Tester have covered the types of examples the new Choice Program brings for all our veterans--a real choice, a real opportunity to make the private sector a force multiplier for access to healthcare for our veterans but also make our healthcare system for our veterans accountable--accountable to the most important people of all, and that is our veterans.

“It does a few other things too. It creates a caregiver program for the Vietnam-era veterans. That hasn't been talked about much on the floor, but Patty Murray on our committee and Susan Collins from the Republican caucus in the Senate have for years tried to get caregiver benefits for Vietnam-era veterans and veterans of other wars which were not covered previously. With the passage of this bill, they will be covered for those basic essentials of life and necessities. They will have that covered for them, and we will get it done.

“Those veterans who came home from a terrible war in Vietnam with many injuries we had never seen people survive before also need care we never thought we would have to pay for before, but we are doing it now with caregivers for that generation, which is my generation. I am proud to say that we are finally looking after them and are seeing to it that they are included and are working hard on doing so.

“We have also made Choice accountable to the veterans, working for our veterans and making our VA better at a lower cost to the taxpayers than it would have been otherwise, were we providing that service solely by the VA. You get choices, you get quality, you get better service, and you get a better VA for our veterans.

“There have been a lot of people who have made this happen. Senator John McCain originally introduced the idea of Choice four years ago. He founded it, and that is why his name is a part of the title of this bill. We could not have done this without John. He is a great American hero, a great colleague, and through our prayers and our blessings, we wish for him to recover as he is in Arizona.

“I want to thank Joan Carr, my chief of staff; Trey Kilpatrick, my deputy chief; Jay Sulzmann; Amanda Maddox; Ryan Evans; Sal Ortega; and Kristine Nichols. My staff has been phenomenal. They have done a great job. They put up with a lot. They have worked hard, and we got here because of them.

“Also, I thank the other unsung heroes of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs who have helped Jon Tester and me and all our members to see to it that we covered every item, dotted every i, and crossed every t: Bob Henke, our staff director; Adam Reece, who deserves a special shout-out and who, the last couple of weeks, has done double duty and done a great job to get us to where we are today; Leslie Campbell; Maureen O’Neill; Jillian Workman; David Shearman; Camlin Moore; Thomas Coleman; John Ashley; Mitchell Sylvest; Heather Vachon; and Pauline Schmitt. We could not have done our job as elected officials were it not for those people who tirelessly worked long hours to see to it that we got it done.

“Here we are in the U.S. Senate. I am speaking with my First Amendment rights. You are gathered in the Gallery today and watching this at home on C-SPAN because of the First Amendment, gathering because of the amendment that allows us to freely assemble without fear of retribution by the government. Our Bill of Rights are the rights we operate under, and we wouldn’t have them at all were it not for our veterans.

“Next Monday we will celebrate Memorial Day. We will give thanks for every veteran who sacrificed their life and gave the ultimate sacrifice for you and for me. It is not unreasonable to think back and say: You know, had our soldiers not done what they did in World War I and World War II, we might be speaking German or Japanese today rather than English. Because they fought for us in the two great World Wars, they secured and preserved our liberty and freedom, and we speak today as free Americans, and we enjoy the freedom that only democracy could give. That is what we owe our veterans. We owe them everything. Without them, we wouldn’t have the protections we have today.

“As Memorial Day approaches, I love to tell my favorite story about the great reminder I have of what Memorial Day is all about. It is all about a veteran, Roy C. Irwin, from the State of New Jersey. I have never met Roy; I never knew him.

“When I was in Margraten in the Netherlands at the U.S. cemetery where over 8,000 Americans are buried from the Battle of the Bulge, my wife and I spent an afternoon paying tribute and respect at the graves of our veterans and our soldiers. We walked down the road to look at the Stars of David and the crosses, paused for a minute at each headstone, and gave a prayer of thanks for the veterans who had sacrificed everything so that we could be there.

“Then something happened to me that I have never forgotten, and it could happen to any one of you if you ever go to one of those cemeteries and visit. I came upon a headstone, a cross, and I stopped and read it. It said: Roy C. Irwin, New Jersey, private, died, killed in action 12/28/44. I froze in place; 12/28/44 was not just the day that Roy C. Irwin died in the Battle of the Bulge fighting for us. It was the day I was given birth by my mother in Piedmont Atlanta Hospital in Georgia.

“There I was, standing at the foot of someone who had died on the day I was born. He gave his life so that I could enjoy mine.

“Since that time, I have had 73-and-a-half years in which I have been able to be a free citizen of the United States of America, all because of lots of things but nothing more important than Roy C. Irwin and thousands like him who volunteered to fight for our country, to call on the forces of evil wherever they might be. They won our freedom, maintained our independence, and saw to it that you and I could be here today. I have always stopped to give thanks every Memorial Day for all of those who pledged and gave the ultimate sacrifice so that I could be here to make a sacrifice for you.

“I look at our pages in the room today, and I think about my children and my grandchildren. I am so happy they had the opportunity to grow up in the United States of America and so happy you have the ability to serve here today in the United States of America. Remember this: You and I are both here because of one thing. This is a country full of brave volunteers who, when the bell tolls, answer the bell and go fight for America, fight for our freedom, fight for our peace, and fight for our liberty.

“So strike one for liberty when we vote on the final passage of the VA MISSION Act. Vote for better healthcare for our veterans, the choices of our veterans, caregivers for our veterans who haven't had them in the past. Give thanks.

“And with your vote for that bill here, we will have to continue to pay our debt to those who sacrificed or offered to sacrifice the maximum sacrifice for us.

“This is a great country for lots of reasons. You will never find anyone trying to break out of the United States of America. You always find them trying to break in. There is one big difference over any other; that is, those who have fought and died so that we could be free and American citizens forever.

“May God bless our soldiers, may God bless our country, and may God bless the United States of America.

“I yield back my time.”