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Veterans & Military Families

 


 

Congresswoman Tsongas visits with veterans in Lowell, MA


OVERVIEW

I am always so honored to represent the Third District of Massachusetts, which has a proud tradition of military service.  As the daughter of an Air Force colonel who survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my childhood and teenage years were spent moving from one military base to another across this country and around the world, and I know how challenging, rewarding and stressful life in the military can be. 

As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, I have made supporting and protecting our servicemembers and our veterans, whose lives have been changed forever by the experience of war, one of my highest priorities since first taking office. One of my first votes as a Member of Congress was in support of the largest single increase in funding for veterans programs in the 77-year history of the Veterans Administration. 

But there is much more to be done, especially when it comes to clearing avenues to jobs, preventing and eliminating homelessness and providing other vital resources that our veterans need to transition to civilian life. Legislators and leaders must prioritize protecting the well-being of the men and women who fought to protect our freedoms.

The veneration of our brave servicemen and women is not restricted to once a year commemoration events. According to 2013 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are nearly 380,000 veterans in Massachusetts, including around 40,000 in the Third District.

There is a long-term cost of war and if our young men and women are willing to put their lives on the line to fight for us, providing them with the care they need when they return and into the future is the least we can do.

With my father’s memory in mind, and the memory of all those who have served from the Third Congressional District, and across the country, I will continue to dedicate my time in Congress to honoring our commitment to our servicemen and women, past and present.


VETERANS ASSISTANCE

One of the commitments that I made when I took office in 2007 was to have a dedicated staff person in my district office who would work to serve veterans and military families. 

In one year, my office helped more than 300 veterans, servicemembers or members of their families and assisted the veterans of the district in receiving $1,094,051 in awards, compensation, and pensions. 

If you are a veteran seeking assistance or would like to learn more about my Veterans Advisory Committee, please contact my office at: 978-459-0101.

VETERANS ADVISORY COMMITTEE

In order to ensure that I am able to stay connected to local veterans, their families, and organizations providing veterans with key services in our community, I created a Third District Veterans Advisory Committee. 

I meet regularly with this group, which consists of veterans, military family members, representatives from veteran service organizations, and others.  A number of the legislative ideas that I have pursued in Congress were generated or discussed during these helpful meetings, including initiatives to make body armor more functional for troops.


TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE

As our nation continues to draw down our military involvement abroad and more American heroes return home, it is incumbent upon us to guarantee them the reverence and support necessary for life on the homefront. I have heard from numerous veterans and from discussions with my Veterans Advisory Committee about the difficulties facing our servicemen and women as they seek to transition back to civilian life.

MODERN MONTGOMERY GI BILL

Shortly after I first came to Congress, I was proud to vote in favor of a modernized Montgomery GI Bill that, among other things, restores full, four-year college scholarships to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has sent more than 600,000 returning servicemembers or their children to college.

This modernized Montgomery GI Bill offers expanded college benefits to all children of fallen troops since 9/11/2001. It also extended education benefits to veterans seeking vocational and on-the job training, as well as National Guardsmen and veterans taking advantage of online education and distance learning. The bill gives our returning troops access to the training and education they will need to succeed after military service, strengthen our recovering economyand achieve the American dream they risked so much to defend. The valuable education that our veterans receive from this crucial education also allows them to continue serving their country in a civilian capacity.

MENTAL HEALTH CARE

I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee to advocate for the importance of improving the mental health care services and capabilities of the VA. 

I introduced legislation to require the VA to report vacancies in mental health positions to ensure these critical positions are being fully staffed.

Knowing that a new generation of veterans would soon be taking advantage of the updated GI Bill, and many veterans would soon begin tofill university classrooms, I introduced legislation to create a pilot program to train counselors at higher education facilities to recognize the signs of PTSD and other mental health conditions affecting the veteran student population.  These counselors may be the most easily accessible mental health professionals for veterans taking advantage of their GI Bill benefits and they should be trained and ready to help our veterans succeed and heal. 

I also successfully attached an amendment to the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) encouraging the Army, Navy and Marine Corps to conduct an assessment of the mental health of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operators. Given the changing nature of warfare, I believe it is important that we are constantly evaluating any gaps where mental health care coverage is lacking.

MILITARY SUICIDE

Recent years have seen all-time highs for military suicides. It is imperative for Congress to keep pressure on the DoD and the VA to ensure that they are doing everything humanly possible to prevent these tragedies and be a resource for those in need. It also came to my attention that the epidemic of veteran suicides may in fact be spreading to the family members of service members, given the fact that military loved ones are also often coping with very similar stressors. However, to date very little of this data is tracked by the services. When it comes to addressing suicide and issues of mental health, information is critical. The most effective services can only be provided if we have the most complete data possible.With that goal in mind, I authored legislation that closes harmful gaps in the DOD’s suicide data collection process.

My DOD Suicide Tracking Act, which was successfully included in the FY2015 NDAA, addresses two major areas on which suicide data is not currently collected in a standard way– military families and members of the National Guard and Reserves. The bill requires the DOD to establish a standardized suicide tracking policy for the Guard and Reserves. It also requires the DOD to establish a process to track, retain and assess suicide data for military family members.

JOBS FOR VETERANS

A major component of the transition to civilian life, which has been discussed many times at my Veterans Advisory Committee meetings, is securing steady employment.

Data released in March of 2014 notes that as of 2013, there were over 720,000 unemployed veterans in the United States. And according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 57,849 veterans are homeless on an average night. These numbers are staggering given the fact that veterans make up less than 1% of our population. 

In 2011, I strongly supported the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, legislation that passed in the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Obama. This law guarantees an improved benefits package for veterans as they transition into civilian life and it is very similar to what was proposed as part of President Obama’s American Jobs Act. Tax credits are given to companies for each veteran they hire, training and education programs for disabled veterans have been improved, and new initiatives were created to connect disabled veterans with companies wishing to employ them.

One area I believe we must improve is ensuring that the injuries that veterans sustain while serving do not become barriers to employment when they come home.

VETERANS BUSINESS OUTREACH CENTER

In order to support our veterans, I helped to secure a $750,000 grant over 5 years from the Small Business Administration to open a new Veterans Business Outreach Center in downtown Lawrence. This center provides assistance to veterans who are starting their own business or looking for ways to grow an existing one 

The Center is one of only eight such centers nationwide and serves veterans throughout New England.  Services provided by the Veterans Business Outreach Center include outreach, assessment, long and short-term business training, counseling, directed referring, electronic or on-line assistance and other technical assistance services to veterans, service disabled veterans, and U.S. Military Reserve Component business owners and entrepreneurs.    


GUARANTEEING ACCESS TO SERVICE RECORDS

Veterans and their families have repeatedly expressed frustration with the cumbersome process they have to go through in order to transfer their military records and benefit information from military to civilian life. 

I authored legislation entitled the Improving Veterans’ Electronic Transition Services Act (iVETS Act), which would encourage the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to create an internet based portal for veterans to access their records and benefits information electronically. It would model the web-based portal for veterans after the Defense Knowledge Online system, which all active duty military members use to access their Official Military Personnel File but which they lose access to once they become veterans.

The web based portal that I proposed would have provided unprecedented benefits to veterans.  

For example, if a servicemember received an Army Achievement Medal for their actions when his/her convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device, and as a veteran, s/he later starts to experience TBI symptoms, the award citation – which would be part of his/her personnel electronic records – could help the veteran prove a service related connection and could expedite needed medical benefits. 

After this legislation was proposed, the Veterans Administration took it upon themselves to improve the legacy system, eBenefits, by allowing servicemembers to electronically access their Official Military Personnel Files. My office received a demonstration of the new and improved eBenefits system from the VA, and while progress is being made, the system still has many obstacles to overcome.   As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I will continue to actively monitoring this issue. 

Visit https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits-portal/ebenefits.portal


VETERANS ADMINISTRATION (VA)

Ensuring the VA has the resources it needs to provide modern, effective support to our returning soldiers is critical to ensuring a productive transition from active duty to civilian life. One of my first votes in Congress was in support of the largest single increase in funding for veterans programs in the 77-year history of the Veteran’s Administration.

Democrats in Congress made a number of historic investments in veterans’ services, including giving businesses a $2,400 tax credit for hiring unemployed veterans and making it a priority to expand relief, homeownership opportunities, and refinancing options for veterans.

Visit the VA website by clicking here

HEALTH CARE AND COST OF LIVING ADJUSTMENTS

I cosponsored the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act, which was signed into law in 2009, to ensure the VA receives adequate funding and resources each and every year, allowing it to provide our veterans with the best health care and services possible. The law also provides additional oversight to make the VA health care system more effective and efficient. 

In 2010, I voted to increase VA health care funding by $3.7 billion over the previous year to meet the needs of our veterans, including more than 2.3 million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I also supported funding to hire 4,048 new permanent VA claims processors to decrease the backlog of veterans’ benefit claims ensuring veterans receive the quality care and benefits they deserve as quickly as possible. 

I supported legislation that guarantees timely and reliable funding for VA medical services, authorizing Congress to provide these investments a year in advance, delivering the number one priority of veterans organizations. It would also provide nearly 18,000 new doctors and nurses for the VA.

I also understand how frustrating it can be for veterans and their families as they wait each year to see if they'll receive a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).  While Congress has never failed to pass legislation to grant these increases, the fact that they had to be approved by Congress every year left many feeling uncertain and very concerned. 

On May 22, 2013, I supported and the House of Representatives passed the American Heroes COLA Act, H.R. 570.  Introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NM) and Rep. John Runyan (R-NJ), the American Heroes COLA Act would authorize the Secretary of the VA to automatically increase veterans' benefits each year by using the same calculation and rate used to increase Social Security benefits.  The bill will increase the rates of disability compensation for veterans with service connected disabilities, as well as the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of veterans with specific service connected disabilities.

More recently in 2014, reports of mismanagement and misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed systemic problems within the VA’s healthcare system, resulting in extensive wait times and inadequate care. President Obama commissioned an in-depth audit of the system and made personnel changes to increase accountability. And in July of 2014, Congress approved a bipartisan agreement –the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 - to reform and strengthen the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill will fund the hiring of more doctors and health care professionals and it will authorize funding for additional health clinics, including one here in Massachusetts. Additionally, it will take steps to strengthen support for survivors of military sexual assault.  Importantly, it will also provide VA Secretary Bob McDonald with the authority to hold accountable those who are serving in such critical roles at the VA.

Still, more should and can be done, and the VA will continue to require both stringent oversight and support from Congress so that changes are put in place to ensure veterans are receiving the care they have earned and deserve.


RESOURCES

Click here for a full list of Veterans Resources

Health Care for Members of the Reserve Components

Health Care for Members of the Reserve Components (09/28/0911:09 AMET )

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