One of the greatest honors I have in my public life is the opportunity to thank our veterans for their service to America. Throughout our history, U.S. servicemen from every corner of our state - from Laredo to Lubbock to Longview – have signed up to defend the free world from tyrannical dictatorships. To those who have stepped forward in war and peace, raised their right hand, and said, "Here I am; send me," no measure of thanks, however bountiful, can ever suffice.
Veterans represent our nation’s best. They are our most patriotic, brave and valorous citizens: men and women of character who have determined that the defense of democracy is worth the risk to life and limb. Eleven million Americans served in World War II; 1.8 million participated in the Korean War; another 3 million fought in Vietnam; over 500,000 helped liberate Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War; and today almost 1.5 million active duty personnel proudly wear the U.S. uniform.
Today, fully one out of ten who serve on active duty call Texas home. With the planned growth at Ft. Sam Houston, Ft. Bliss and Ft. Hood, Texas will soon be home to nearly one out of five active duty soldiers. Many will stay permanently, increasing our state’s veteran population, which already stands at 1.7 million.
President Lincoln once said, a grateful nation must "care for him who shall have borne the battle." As your U.S. Senator, I have strived to ensure that America takes positive action to honor and pay our nation’s debt to our veterans.
For example, back in 2003, the VA Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission released a draft plan that called for the closure of the Waco and Big Spring VA hospitals. I fiercely resisted this proposal. I asked the VA, "What will happen to the veterans in those communities?" They answered – with no trace of irony – "They can go to El Paso." When I told them that was the equivalent of asking veterans in Washington, D.C. to travel to New York City for their care, they stared at me with incomprehension. It never occurred to them how large Texas is, and just how irresponsible their proposal was. Thankfully, after a sustained push with the help of local leaders, the VA kept both facilities open and expanded the Waco Veterans Hospital as a "Mental Health Care Center of Excellence," just at the time the military increased its focus on post-traumatic stress.
For years, our heroes in the Rio Grande Valley were having to endure 500 mile, ten-hour roundtrip treks to San Antonio for basic procedures and routine check-ups and then wait hours and many times have to spend the night. After a major effort, we were able to convince the VA to build a state-of–the-art outpatient healthcare center in Harlingen. This facility, once completed, will eliminate travel to San Antonio by 95 percent. Make no mistake: this is only a down payment on a much larger debt that must still be paid – a hospital that serves the needs of South Texas veterans.
Survivability is higher in the type of warfare our military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the VA is increasing its treatment, provision of artificial limbs and rehabilitation. Veterans in the San Antonio area will also be greatly helped by the construction of a Level One Polytrauma Facility. San Antonio is already known as America’s Number One center for military medicine, but the explosive growth of former military members moving there made it essential that we expand care for veterans. When the polytrauma facility opens, it will be capable of providing first-class service designed specifically for veterans with multiple serious injuries. I was glad to be part of concerted local efforts to convince the VA San Antonio was the right choice for expansion. And once completed, it will be a fitting addition to "Military City USA."
As a grateful nation, America will continue to care for those who "have borne the battle." It is because of those who have defended this nation - from the early Revolutionary War to today’s Global War on Terror - that we have the liberties that are necessary for America to become and remain the most vibrant and prosperous nation in the history of the world. These moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters have made tremendous sacrifices to safeguard liberty at home and abroad. And I pledge to keep doing my part to ensure our government honors our veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas. She is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
and the Ranking Republican Member of the Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies.