WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 27, 2014) - Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered a speech on the Senate floor in support of S.1982, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act, a comprehensive proposal he cosponsored to strengthen veterans benefits. Senator Heinrich fought to include key provisions in the bill to help New Mexico's veterans and military families.
Below are Senator Heinrich's remarks as prepared for delivery:
Mr. President, lest we forget -- more than thirty thousand brave Americans are still serving in harm's way in Afghanistan.
And hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform are serving around the world.
They all volunteered.
In return for their volunteerism, we made a number of promises.
The ability to maintain the strongest and most dedicated military force in the world depends on our nation's ability to keep its promises.
I am proud to cosponsor the legislation being debated this week, S. 1982, which is perhaps the most significant veterans' legislation to come before Congress in many years.
This legislation has the strong support of virtually every veterans' organization in the country including The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
These organizations support the bill because it renews our promise.
I am fortunate to represent the state of New Mexico, which has one of the highest rates of military volunteerism in the nation.
New Mexico is home to more than 170,000 veterans.
2,000 New Mexicans endured the Bataan Death March during World War II.
And New Mexico is home to many of our nation's finest military installations.
Kirtland Air Force Base: The Air Force's sixth largest base with over 100 partners and a strategic role in ensuring our nation's safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons.
Cannon Air Force Base: The fastest growing Air Force base in the country leading the fight in special operations.
Holloman Air Force Base: An indispensable Air Force base with unparalleled air space now and into the future.
And White Sands Missile Range: The largest military installation in the country with a testing and training environment that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
Additionally, the New Mexico National Guard employs roughly 3,800 full- and part-time military personnel.
Collectively, there are 18,000 military personnel serving today in New Mexico.
Volunteerism isn't simply a career choice for New Mexicans; it is a way of life.
It is engrained in our state's rich history of putting community and country first.
The bill before us today renews our promise to all of them, and all of those who are willing to lay down their life for their country. It provides benefits to all generations of veterans and their families, and it eliminates the cost-of-living adjustment penalty on military retirees.
The legislation incorporates bills and ideas from both Democrats and Republicans to address the disability claims backlog, including one of my own.
Across New Mexico, I have heard from too many veterans who are frustrated with the delays they experience in receiving their disability benefits.
Last June, Senator Heller and I introduced the Veterans Benefits Claims Faster Filing Act, which requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to ensure every veteran is informed of the vast differences in times for processing compensation claims when filing a fully developed claim versus a non-fully developed claim.
It takes on average 113 days for veterans to receive a final disability rating if they file a Fully Developed Claim online, compare that to over a year if they file a non-Fully Developed paper claim.
Filing claims online through the Fully Developed Claims program accelerates turnaround times and makes processing more efficient.
Doing so also provides an additional year of retroactive benefits as an incentive to veterans who file a Fully Developed Claim.
The Faster Filing Act and other legislative efforts represent a collective effort to reduce the backlog and ensure our veterans receive the benefits they have earned.
I am also proud to have cosponsored legislation introduced by my colleague from Alaska -- Senator Begich -- to provide "advanced appropriations" for all VA spending accounts.
This would ensure veterans receive uninterrupted access to the benefits they have earned even in the midst of a government shutdown, like the one that occurred last fall.
It is simply unacceptable that veterans would fall victim to the partisan politics of a government shutdown and the legislation today includes a fix to ensure that never happens.
The bill also helps put veterans back to work.
It reauthorizes a two-year extension for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which retrains unemployed veterans for high demand occupations.
And it requires VA to establish a three-year program to provide young veterans under 30 the opportunity to serve in an internship that would pair the veteran with private sector employers so they can gain civilian work experience.
The bill expands the VA's Successful Caregivers Program to provide caregiver benefits to veterans of ALL generations in a similar manner as post-9/11 veterans.
America's service men and women consider our nation's principles important enough to defend them against all enemies and at any cost, and they volunteer to do so.
But volunteerism only works if we fulfill our promises.
Few sacrifices are as selfless as those our military service men and women make in defense of our country.
We owe them more than a debt of gratitude -- we owe them action in both our words and deeds.
This bill backs up our words with action and fulfills our promises.