By Sen. John Thune
Among the highlights of traveling across South Dakota is visiting with the many veterans who have helped shape our communities and embody our state’s selfless and giving culture. From one generation to the next, these patriots have defended our freedom and liberty, and we owe them a big debt of gratitude. In addition to giving thanks, we must also ensure they receive the care and benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice, which is why I’m glad Congress recently passed, and the president signed, several important pieces of legislation that make good on that promise.
Most recently, the president signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. I was proud to cosponsor this legislation, which will overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) current appeals process so it can process claims faster and provide additional transparency and safeguards for veterans, their families, and survivors.
The president also recently signed the “Forever GI Bill,” which will grant full GI Bill benefits to Purple Heart recipients, regardless of their total length of service. The bill will also eliminate the arbitrary 15-year window in which veterans were required to use their benefits after leaving the military and expand educational opportunities for veterans enrolling in high-tech courses like coding boot camps. Broadening the reach of this invaluable education benefit will help ensure that our veterans can build from their military talents and embark on new opportunities as they return to the civilian world.
The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017, which makes a significant investment in the Veterans Choice program, also became law in early August. These additional funds will allow veterans to get timely care in their own communities, rather than enduring long wait times and traveling long distances for care. The bill also authorizes leases for VA medical facilities, including a replacement Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Rapid City.
The current Rapid City CBOC is outdated and too small to meet veterans’ needs. When I met with VA Secretary Shulkin and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation this spring, the secretary indicated that he wanted to make these improvements in Rapid City, which is separate from former VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s decision on the potential realignment of VA services in the Black Hills. That proposal is on hold while the VA reviews its national footprint and veteran needs.
I’m also pleased to report that the VA acted on my request to more prominently feature the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) on its website, VA.gov. I suggested to Secretary Shulkin that the VCL be displayed in the first of four rotating banners on the VA’s website or be given a dedicated button that is immediately identifiable on the VA’s homepage. Within days of receiving my letter, the VA reordered its banners to feature the VCL, and I look forward to working with the VA to further promote this critical resource. Any veteran or member of his or her family can contact the VCL 24 hours per day, seven days per week by texting 838255 or calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing one.
Our commitment to the men and women who serve in the military doesn’t end when they no longer wear the uniform. In many cases, that’s when they need us the most. We owe these heroes and the future defenders of freedom more than we’ll ever actually be able to repay, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.