Honoring Our Commitment to Veterans

May 18, 2006

Hello, this is Senator Barack Obama and today is Thursday, May 18th, 2006.

We've been having some big debates here in Washington; obviously Iraq and Iran are still high on the list. We've also been immersed in the immigration bill, which is actually making more progress than I had expected. I'll be frank with you - I was concerned that after negotiations broke down that we were not going to be able to get a bill out of the Senate. I think, actually, at this point that we may get a comprehensive bill out of the Senate, then the challenge is going to be making sure that we're able to negotiate with House members to reconcile differences and ensure that we've got a piece of legislation that both deals with border security, ensures that employers have to verify the employment status of their employees, and also gives a pathway to citizenship to the 11 to 12 million people who are already here but undocumented.

But I want to just shift gears today. This is an issue that is important to an awful lot of people in Illinois, its also important to a lot of people in states around the country. Some of you may recall, if you've been following the work that we've been doing, that I'm on the Veterans Affairs Committee and however you feel about the war in Iraq, however you feel about past wars, I think all of us, Republican, Democrat, urban, rural, whatever your demographic, should share in the belief that when a young man or woman goes off and serves our country in the military, that they should be treated with the utmost dignity and respect when they come home. That should especially be true for those who have suffered disabilities on the battlefield. Anybody who's ever visited Walter Reed Hospital here in Washington and has seen twenty year-olds and twenty-two year-olds who have had legs amputated or suffered severe nerve damage I think understands they have made an unbelievable sacrifice on our behalf and that we've got an obligation to make sure that just as they are fighting on our behalf that we are going to make sure that we fight for their behalf when they come home.

It turned out that a number of veterans in states including Illinois had been apparently short-changed in terms of their disability payments. Typically, veterans who've been injured receive some sort of disability payment. They are evaluated by various regional offices of Veterans Affairs, and they are awarded a certain percentage based on the kind of injury they've received and the severity of the injury.

It turns out that in Illinois, for a wide range of reasons, you had veterans who had been injured getting paid much lower disability payments than veterans in some other states - and these differences were substantial. Illinois veterans, for example, were receiving 42 percent less per year than some of the leading states. So, to give you an example, an average disability payment to Illinois veterans would be $6,961. In New Mexico, the top ranked state - same veteran, same disability - on average, was getting $12,000 a year. So, obviously this wasn't acceptable to me as a senator from Illinois, but it was unacceptable, I think, to anybody who believes that any veteran who has served our country, wherever they live, should be treated fairly and equitably. As a consequence, we've moved forward and passed legislation last year ensuring that, in fact, some of these differentials were dealt with. We asked the VA to come to Illinois and other states that had suffered some of these problems and made sure that, in fact, they started assigning and retraining some of the people who were doing the evaluations. The other thing is we insisted that the Veterans Administration do outreach to people who have received disability payments all these years and may have been short-changed. And so what happened is starting this month, you had the Department of Veterans Affairs sending out letters to disabled veterans in Illinois and several other states indicating to them that they live in a state that has received low average disability compensation and that they have the right to open new claims, appeal what a veteran may consider to be a bad decision, to get help from veterans service organizations, in terms of processing these reevaluations that have been requested.

And so today I just wanted to make sure that veterans were aware of this. I hope that we've got some veterans on the podcast who may have been disabled and are receiving benefits. If you live in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio or New Jersey, than you live in a state in which the average disability payment is substantially lower than payments to disabled veterans in other states. It doesn't mean that your individual payment is necessarily too low; it may have been that you actually were treated fairly by the VA, but there is a possibility that because you live in one of these states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio or New Jersey) that, in fact, you were getting a lower disability payment than you should have received. The VA should have sent a letter to you to contact you, to give you an opportunity to have your claim reevaluated and if you have not received a letter but you are a disabled veteran that was awarded a disability payment in one of those states, then you can call 1-800-827-1000. That's 1-800-827-1000, or you can get on the following website: www.vba.va.gov/specialoutreach. I know that's a mouthful, so what you can do is get on our website and we will post on the website, the VA website that is designed to do this outreach. I hope that all of you take a look at this if you are a disabled veteran because we want to make sure that you have been treated fairly by the VA.

And for those of you who aren't veterans, I hope that you will continue to be supportive of our veterans. Many of them have a very difficult time adjusting when they first come back home. I think any of us who can imagine being on the battlefield in a place like Baghdad, perhaps seeing one of your friends injured or killed, seeing yourself lose a leg or an arm, experiencing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, you can only imagine the difficulties in making the adjustment to civilian life.

In fact, one of the things that I'm going to be monitoring very closely is how are we treating the 100,000 plus veterans who are going to be coming home and to make sure the VA has the capacity to provide transition services for veterans who are leaving the service and reentering civilian life, particularly National Guardsmen and Reservists who perhaps did not expect to be fighting in a place like Iraq. It turns out that if you catch a veteran and provide them good services on the way out, they are much less likely to suffer Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and can make the adjustment. If some of the problems they may have as a consequence of being on the battlefield are not dealt with early, then they can have long-term problems, which is one of the reasons why veterans are seven times more likely to be homeless than non-veterans. So, that's an amazing statistic to think about. It indicates the enormous toll that war, of any sort, can take on our young men and women. It's also a reminder for those of us who are in civilian life but have the authority to authorize war do so with a great sense of responsibility and caution.

Anyway, it's great to talk to you guys as always. I will be back on this podcast next week. In the meantime, I hope everybody will continue to monitor this immigration debate. I may have something more to say about it next week. In the meantime, I hope everybody will continue to monitor this immigration debate. I may have something more to say about it next week. Bye-bye.