I hope you had a happy holiday with family
and friends. We lost many friends in 2004, and as a family—VVA and
AVVA together—we share the grief of all those who lost loved ones.
My personal gratitude goes to all those
VVA members who have stepped forward over the years by taking on a
role or assignment and those who have introduced themselves as
candidates at the chapter, state, and national levels. You are the
roots that firmly hold our family tree on solid, defensible
ground. We need you to continue to hold our position as the leader
in the battle for veterans’ rights.
It would be foolish to believe that over
these past 25 years we have labored in vain, but we must face the
undeniable reality that we have all become soldiers again. We will
not retreat, and we certainly will not surrender.
With the resignation of Secretary Anthony
Principi, we welcome Jim Nicholson as Secretary of Veterans
Affairs. Nicholson, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who
says his Army service was the defining experience in his life,
surely hasn’t forgotten the struggles and heroic efforts to secure
basic veterans’ rights, benefits, and services.
Who would have thought that those
returning from America’s latest ground war would face the same
problems and obstacles we faced more than 30 years ago when we
returned from Vietnam? Yet with current inadequate services for
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other health care, plus the
projected cuts, that is just what is happening.
Secretary Nicholson has never held an
elected public position. He is a well-known fundraiser and
national political strategist who does not have background or
experience in veterans affairs. He has said he will only support
Priority 1 through Priority 6 veterans. He will have a steep
learning curve in a very hostile fiscal environment, with the
administration and Congress looking to cut all domestic funding to
allow for yet more tax cuts.
As to hostile changes in Congress, it is
unconscionable that Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) was ousted as chair
of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. This was a partisan
rebuke of his advocacy on behalf of those who served this nation.
Smith often angered his fellow Republicans with his vocal support
for a pro-veteran agenda, and he challenged the Republican
leadership when he felt Congress and the Bush administration were
not adequately funding veterans’ programs. Veterans will miss the
leadership of Chris Smith and his determination to make things
right for those who served. He has been and will remain a true
friend to veterans.
He was replaced by Rep.
Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), an Army Reserve colonel and Gulf War veteran
who has been a member of the committee for 12 years and is
considered fiscally conservative. Buyer has stated that federal
budget constraints do not always allow every former servicemember
to have full access to VA medical benefits. He has publicly said
that there is more than enough money in the VA health care system,
and he has criticized veterans’ advocates for engaging in partisan
politics and promoting a national health care system for veterans.
Though he refused to name those “veterans
advocates,” he could be referring to the Partnership for Veterans
Health Care Budget Reform, a group of nine veterans service
organizations that came together last year in an historic common
appeal “with one voice to make a case for the change the veterans
health care system so desperately needs.”
From my vantage point, the opposition is quite clear, in the open,
and vulnerable. VVA and our colleagues in other veterans’
organizations are seeking proper funding for health care, on a
non-partisan basis. It happens that the Democrats are supportive
of that effort. It is also true many Republicans who privately
agree with us are afraid to say so publicly, now more than ever,
as the administration and the Republican leadership in the
Congress will punish them and their constituents. This is not a
partisan statement on our part; it is a fact.
Without the votes of veterans, none of
them or their fellow Democratic lawmakers would be there. They
must be constantly reminded who they represent. We put them in
office and it is our responsibility—no, it is our duty—to haunt
their district offices and let them know why adequate funding of
veterans’ services, care, and treatment must be a priority.
As a team with a persistent message, we
have enjoyed countless successes and some failures. Now, more than
ever, we need your support as we prepare for the clash ahead of
us. We will keep you advised of our activities in the field and on
Adding to the current shortfall of at
least several billion, the VA’s own budget projections over the
next several years show that figure ballooning to nearly $6
billion as another quarter million Americans earn the title of
We are only asking for everyone to live up to their affirmations
of support for moral values and acknowledge that it is a moral
value—a uniquely American moral value—to care for all who served
and their families.
We will work with the
new VA Secretary, with Congress, with the administration, and with
anyone else who will listen. The question is: Is anyone listening?
Remember our troops. My personal best
wishes for a year of peace, health, and good fortune for all.