"I believe in a sacred contract between our country and America's veterans and military families. We must stand by those who stand by us. When our service men and women sacrifice so much to defend our freedom and secure peace around the world, we have a moral obligation to take care of them and their families." - John Edwards
Under George Bush, our government has not lived up to its responsibility to the men and women who have been injured while serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan - wars that have already generated more than 220,000 disability claims.. The scandal at Walter Reed is only one example of a consistent failure to take responsibility for those who have sacrificed for our country. Too often, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who fought for our country encounter a system that takes months or even years to make benefit determinations, and that forces them to fight again forbenefits. [LA Times, 7/24/2007]
The Washington Post recently reported on Army Specialist Jeans Cruz, one of the team who helped capture Saddam Hussein. He was called a war hero when he came home to his country. He soon suffered debilitating depression from his experiences in Iraq. After filing a claim for disability benefits based on post-traumatic stress disorder, he was turned down by the VA because they said his psychological problems existed before joining the Army. He told the paper, "My experience so far is, you ask for something and they deny, deny, deny. After a while you just give up." [Washington Post, 6/17/07]
John Edwards will not give up on our veterans. He believes we can do better through reforms that will help our injured warriors and make government work more efficiently and effectively.
Edwards has previously announced a plan to repair our country's Sacred Contract with our veterans and military families by guaranteeing quality health care, supporting military families and providing education and economic opportunities for civilian life. Today, Edwards built on his existing Sacred Contract proposal with a new 5-point "Standing by Our Heroes" plan to help returning service men and women with disabilities by:
- Aggressively Resolving the Disability Claims Backlog: The VA currently has a backlog of between 400,000 and 600,000 claims for disability benefits, and wait times for initial determinations of up to 6 months. Edwards would adopt an aggressive, goal-oriented approach to processing the backlog. As president, he will aim to process the entire backlog that exists when he takes office by Memorial Day 2009, and will cut the average processing time in half. [CNN, 2007]
- Facilitating Care for "Signature Injuries": Over 30 percent of these veterans experience psychological problems after returning home. Many veterans suffer from the "signature injuries" of this war—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). As president, Edwards will increase capacity within the Department of Defense for recognizing and addressing these injuries by improving training for health personnel to recognize and treat PTSD and TBI, increasing counseling resources within the TRICARE and VA networks, permitting access outside of the networks, and ensuring outreach tofamily members, who can recognize symptoms. [Department of Defense 2007]
- Providing a Comprehensive Medical Examination: Too often, veterans receive their first medical examination months or even years after they leave the service, which makes it difficult to ascertain whether an injury is service-related, creating difficulties and inefficiencies later. As president, Edwards will create a new system providing each service member with a comprehensive, standardized medical examination before or immediately after leaving the service, and will link that examination with the disability rating. Both will be included in a new "Homefront Redeployment Plan" every veteran will receive.
- Fixing the DOD/VA Disconnect: Today, veterans face a bureaucratic maze with two different agencies and needless overlaps. The Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense have conflicting criteria and overlapping disability determinations. As president, Edwards will have only the VA make disability determinations, and will launch a broad effort to coordinate all DOD and VA functions.
- Increasing Caseworkers and Training: Caseworkers provide an extremely valuable service to veterans facing a thicket of regulations and forms, particularly older veterans unfamiliar with web-based forms. Caseworkers also help families struggling with consequences of an injury. As president, Edwards will hire at least 300 more VA caseworkers, and implement an accelerated training program including family outreach.