Floor and Committee Statements

“Mr. President, I rise today to talk about a vote we will take in the Senate sometime later today, after 12 o’clock. It will be a cloture vote on the VA MISSION Act. After we adopt cloture, later this week, hopefully, it will lead us to the final vote to adopt the VA MISSION Act, which will be the final mosaic in the picture that was put together by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the administration and both the House and the Senate to address the VA benefits program for all of our veterans.

“We all know we have had the challenge to do better, and I submit that this is us doing our very best for those who have given everything for us.

“Next week, on Monday, we will celebrate Memorial Day, where we honor those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can all be here today--you, Mr. President, as the Presiding Officer of this body and I, as a representative of the people of Georgia. If it weren’t for our veterans, we might be speaking Japanese or German today. We are speaking English today because we won those wars because our best and brightest volunteered their lives and sacrificed so that Americans can survive and be here.

“There is nothing less that we need to ask of ourselves than to see to it that they have the healthcare benefits we have promised them for so long.

“The VA MISSION Act is an act that puts together and answers all of those questions that have been long on the front page of the newspapers for the last 2 or 3 years.

“I thank John McCain. John McCain was really the inspiration for the Veterans Choice bill, which we started four years ago when I was on the committee. We finally passed a part of that program, and it has been in operation until now, but it has had a need for reform, a need to be fixed, and a need to be funded.

“With the passage of this legislation, we will do all of those things and make it even better.

“I thank Jon Tester, the Senator from Montana, my ranking member on the committee, who has done everything one could ask. He was a team player who saw to it that we got through all of the minefields and sticky wickets you have to go through in the legislative process to get there. Senator Tester has been an invaluable partner in putting together the VA MISSION Act and in making the VA a better organization.

“I thank my staff, his staff, and my members of the committee from the Republican Party and his members from the Democratic Party. This is as close to a unanimous effort as any effort we have done in the committee for some time. I thank them for their hard work and their effort.

“I thank in advance the Members of the House and Senate for being with us on this venture today. I ask for your vote for cloture, and later in the week, I will ask for your vote for final passage.

“Briefly, let me tell you what we are doing because what we are doing is critical.

“One, we are making choice better for our veterans by repealing the 40-mile rule and the 30-day rule, which we passed four years ago. People will remember that veterans were waiting in some cases years to get their appointments with the VA, so we passed a rule that said: You can go to the private sector if you can’t get an appointment within 30 days or if you live more than 40 miles away from the VA center that provided that service. But it became cumbersome and difficult. We had a number of problems with the third-party contractors we dealt with who were making the clearances and opening the gates for the veterans to go.

“Although we improved service and access for our veterans, we didn't make it everything it should be.

“The VA MISSION Act does that because it makes the choice the veteran’s choice in concert with the veteran’s primary care doctor at the VA. If a veteran, because of quality, timeliness, distance, urgency, or need, needs to go to the private sector or wants to exercise that choice rather than go to a VA doctor, if there is one--or if there isn’t one, go to the private sector because that is the only choice they have--they will be able to do so in concert with their VA primary care doctor.

“So Choice is truly the veteran’s choice. The VA continues to have the responsibility of keeping up with the veteran. The veteran has the choice he or she needs to make to see to it that they get timely, professional, and quality care. That is a huge step forward for us.

“That is a great step forward. Although the 30-day rule and the 40-mile rule were great starts, this is a great improvement for access for our veterans.

“I am a Vietnam-era veteran. Vietnam-era veterans are now mostly in their late sixties or early to mid-seventies. They served our country a long time ago. The signature injuries of the Vietnam war were some of the most tragic in warfare that were survived for the first time ever because of our healthcare. There are a lot of those veterans living today who can't take care of the basic functions of life. They need assistance with eating, making their bed, getting up and down stairs, getting anywhere they need to go.

“We have veteran programs for caregivers for almost every veteran around but not for the Vietnam-era veterans. This bill, the VA MISSION Act, applies the VA caregiver benefits to all veterans. So if a veteran needs that assistance, that same incentive to help with the stipend for that service is available to that veteran. That is a giant step forward for all of us.

“It is also very important to recognize that we consolidate the VA’s seven community care funding sources into one single community care source. For the first time in three years, the VA will no longer announce every three months that they are running out of money. A lot of times, they use that little trick on us because they run out of money in one department, but there are six others that are loaded. So we merged them all together to see to it that all the funds are available and accessible all of the time for the veterans who have the need for the benefit-- no more scaring us all by saying that we are not funding our veterans, but instead seeing to it that our veterans have access when it is timely and when they need it. That is a very important change, and that is a move forward we have needed to make for a long time.

“It makes sense for us to make sure that our veterans have their choice based on quality, access, and timeliness. It makes sense that we make that a key part of the veterans’ benefits to all veterans. It makes sense that we see to it that caregiver benefits are available to Vietnam-era veterans, as well as many others.

“It makes sense that we do all of the other things we have done in all of the VA acts to come together to totally reform the Veterans Administration for our veterans who have served us.

“How many people is that?

“There are 22-and-a-half million people in America today who have served us at one time or another. There are 6-and-a-half million people who are served by the VA health services. That is a lot of people, but it is a small handful of people compared to the 350 million people in our country.

“Think about this: Fewer than 1 percent of our population served and defended us all and risked their lives.

“So when you go to vote on this bill today, think about the veteran in your state, the VA service in your state, and the people in your state.

“Think about what you remember about World Wars I and II, what you remember about Vietnam, and what you remember about Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan. Think about what you think you owe to those who signed on the bottom line. Many weren’t conscripted. They weren’t mandated. They volunteered. They went, they fought, and they died.

“I want to leave you with a thought on two of those veterans because they are the two faces I see every day as the chairman of this committee I am working for.

“One of them is Noah Harris. Noah was a cheerleader at the University of Georgia on 9/11/2001 when he watched, as you and I did, al-Qaida and the evils of that era take down the Twin Towers, and we had the first battle of the ultimate war between good and evil.

“We fought that battle. We are still winning it. We are still fighting it, and we will fight it for a long time. We have lost over 6,000 lives, individuals who sacrificed their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan or other places in the Middle East, and there will be others to come.

“They sacrificed so you and I can do what we are doing here today--the First Amendment protections of speaking our minds, as I am doing; the right to assemble, as our constituents do; and the right to defend ourselves and be safe. All those God-given rights we have were written on paper, but they were given life and protection for all of us by the veterans who volunteered and fought and died.

“I remember Noah Harris because he was a cheerleader one day at the University of Georgia, and on 9/12/2001--the day after 9/11--he went down to the armory, signed up for OCS, went into the Army, and became an officer. Two years later, almost to the day, he died in Baghdad, the victim of an IED. He died defending the country he loved so much. He cheered for the football team, but he fought and sacrificed his life for the country.

“I want Lucy and Rick--his mom and dad, in Ellijay, Ga.,--to know that I haven’t forgotten Noah and what he did for us. I sign most of my notes the same way Noah signed his note to me: ‘IDWIC, Noah Harris.’ ‘IDWIC stands for ‘I do what I can.’ I want to have a chance to do what I can today. I want to vote for this bill for all the right reasons but principally for Noah Harris.

“The other one is a veteran whose name is Roy C. Irwin. Roy died in the Battle of the Bulge in the Netherlands in 1944.

“When I went to the cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, to visit the grave sites there and to check on the American battle monument, I walked with my wife down the rows of crosses and Stars of David just to pause for a second and give thanks for what the over 800 soldiers there in that cemetery did in the Battle of the Bulge to make our lives possible and to make it possible for me to enjoy the benefits I have enjoyed.

“We got to the end of row 23. I looked down, and there was a cross. It said: ‘Roy C. Irwin, New Jersey, private, December 28, 1944, KIA’--killed in action.

“I froze at that because I was born on December 28, 1944. The day Roy C. Irwin from New Jersey died in the Battle of the Bulge, my mother delivered me in Piedmont Hospital. I am almost 74 years old.

“I have had 74 wonderful years, including the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Senate, because a guy I never knew, when he was 18 years old, volunteered to go fight in the Battle of the Bulge in the Army for the United States of America. He paid the ultimate sacrifice, and because he did, I got the ultimate benefit.

“When you think about your vote on this bill today, you think about all of those veterans who did the same for you, who have the same birthday or the same killed-in-action date as your birthday, and recognize that every one of us stands on the shoulders of our veterans.

“We live, work, and pray on the shoulders of our veterans. I, for one, am going to vote for our veterans when we pass this bill so that the VA MISSION Act becomes the final mosaic in the beautiful patchwork of benefits for those who have sacrificed the most for all of us.

“I yield back.”