Videos & Speeches
I certainly appreciate the remarks of my colleague, the Senator from Texas, in regard to honoring those who served our country so nobly and so courageously 70 years ago, as we recognize this weekend the anniversary of that invasion of Europe, called D-day.
We have many veterans in our country, many military men and women who continue to serve and many who now are veterans and have served in the past, and I am here today to pay tribute not only to those D-day military men and women and those who served our country on such a special occasion in which the course of history was changed, but also to pay tribute to all of those who served our country in all circumstances.
I am not a veteran. I have great regard for those who are. My life is shaped by the fact that the Vietnam war was ongoing during my days as a high school student, and much of my time was spent talking to those a few years older than I who were volunteering or who were drafted, and those who were a little bit older than that who returned home after service in Vietnam. I clearly remember as a 16- or 17-year-old watching the evening news, ``CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,'' and every day the news was consumed with reports from Vietnam, the consequences we found ourselves in, and the sacrifice men and women were making on that battlefield every day.
Again, I didn't serve in Vietnam, but I learned a couple of things from my time observing our country and seeing the sacrifice and service of those who were willing to serve in that war. One of the things I take from that experience is we will always honor, care for, respect those who serve our country in the military in whatever circumstance they have been called to duty.
It was a month ago that I was on the floor on this spot, concerned about the Department of Veterans Affairs and the way our veterans are currently being treated. I asked for a dramatic step of the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit his resignation and for President Obama to accept it. As I indicated a month ago, that was the first and only time as a Senator that I ever asked a Cabinet Secretary to depart his or her position--and I didn't do it lightly--but what had transpired, and what has transpired over a period of time, is a Department of Veterans Affairs that many veterans no longer believe is capable of caring for them. In fact, what was so discouraging and disappointing to me was the number of veterans, men and women who served our country, who had lost faith, who had lost hope in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That Department was created in 1930 for purposes of providing the benefits and health care supporting those who were called to duty, those who responded to their country's call. I certainly know that throughout the course of history the Department of Veterans Affairs has had its challenges, but what seems so compelling to me over the last several years is the sense that no longer was there a plan, no longer was there the effort to make certain that Department lived up to its commitment to those who previously served our country.
A lot has transpired in the last month, and there is now an Acting Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And of course we have reports from across the country of secret lists, concerns about waiting times, and the potential of servicemen and women, veterans, who have suffered as a result of those lists, as a result of having to wait. I guess we will know more about that over the course of time.
I am surprised and disappointed to learn that Kansas hospitals, Kansas facilities, the VA hospital in Wichita is on that list where investigations are now ongoing and where the Department of Veterans Affairs has admitted to a list that delayed access to health care. I would not have expected that in our State. I think we are different. We are special. But the reality is this challenge and the problems we face are system-wide and across the country. What we want is a Department of Veterans Affairs that is worthy of the sacrifice and service of the men and women who served in our military. We don't want damage control from the Department of Veterans Affairs. What we want is the end of damage to those who served our country.
The purpose of my conversation on the floor today is to make certain we don't lose sight. The news cycle comes and goes, and while there are serious issues our country faces in many facets, I don't want this Senate to lose sight of its responsibility to make certain the Department of Veterans Affairs is caring for those who need our care and treatment.
Mr. President, I am worried, and I hope my worries are unfounded. I have only served in the Senate for 4 years. I have been frustrated by being a Member of the Senate. I came here to work on behalf of Americans, on behalf of Kansans. My plea is--my plea is to the Democratic leaders, to Republican leaders, to individual Senators, whatever party they are: Let's not follow the path we have followed so many times in the short period of time I have been here in which there is a Republican plan to fix a problem and there is a Democratic plan to fix a problem. Surely our veterans deserve something more than each of us being able to say we cast a vote for their benefit. Surely they deserve the opportunity to actually have legislation that will address the challenges and problems the Department of Veterans Affairs has. My plea and my request of all in this body is, for these veterans, is to make certain we conduct ourselves in a different way than unfortunately I have seen in most instances as a United States Senator.
We have this phrase around here, ``Well, we will get a side-by-side,'' meaning there is a Democratic plan and a Republican plan; and when you talk about that. What that means is we never expect either one of those plans to pass. So to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, to Senator Reid, the majority leader of the Senate: Please take us down a path that demonstrates once again the Senate can rise to the occasion and do something worthy of the veterans who have served our country.
Every once in a while in this frustration about the way this place doesn't work, I will put on my running shoes and I will walk down to the Lincoln Memorial. It certainly is an inspiring visit to the Lincoln Memorial, but perhaps more importantly on that walk you now go by the World War II Memorial that memorializes those that the Senator from Texas was talking about on D-day. You then walk by the Vietnam Wall, the war that was ongoing in my teenage years. On your way back you come by the Korean War Memorial, the forgotten war. What I am reminded of and what I would call to the attention of my colleagues is not a person recognized in any of those memorials volunteered or was drafted for purposes of advancing the cause of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. There was no interest in partisan politics by those who served our country. They served their country because they believed in a higher calling. They believed they could make a difference. They believed it mattered to their kids and grandkids. It was about freedom and liberty. It wasn't about who scores points in the next election.
Please, leaders of the Senate, all of my colleagues, make certain we rise to the occasion, that we have the same standard, the same motivation, the same reason that we come here every day to be the same as theirs: to make America a better place, to make sure our kids and grandkids live with freedom and liberty, to make sure the American dream is alive and well. If there is an issue that we ought to be able to do that, an issue perhaps different than anything else we deal with, surely we have the ability as a United States Senate to deal with the issues necessary legislatively to resolve and address the problems of the Department of Veterans Affairs and to make certain that every veteran who has served our country has the ability to access quality health care provided in a timely fashion, and that once again the Senate doesn't do what it has done too many times, and that is we all cast a vote and we can claim we have done something, we supported something, but the end result is that nothing happened. Let's avoid nothing happening.
Finally, let me conclude by saying that World War II Memorial is special to me. I have a 98-year-old father home in Plainville, KS, a World War II veteran. I walked up to the World War II Memorial 10 years ago, just a few days before it was being dedicated, and I wanted to see what it was going to look like. It was an inspiring moment. I happened to have my cell phone with me and I walked over to the Kansas pillar and thought about those who served our country in that war, including my dad back home. I walked away from the memorial and used my cell phone to call my dad at home. The message I delivered to my dad that day was: “Dad, I am at the World War II Memorial. It is a memorial built for you. Dad, I want you to know that I thank you for your service. I respect you and I love you.”
That conversation, fortunately, took place on an answering machine and not in person, and was easier to deliver, although a few minutes later my cell phone rang and it was my dad, who said, “Gerald, you left me a message, but I couldn't understand it. Could you tell me again?'”
The point I want to make is, we are called upon as American citizens and certainly as members of the Senate to do all that is possible to demonstrate that we thank our veterans for their service, we respect them, and we love them. The Senate needs to rise to the occasion and not let the partisan politics of this place and this country divide us in a way in which we only symbolically respond but the end result is that we fail those who served, and we failed our veterans who depend upon us just as we have depended upon them for their service to our country.