Congresswoman McCollum's Remarks at the Town Hall for Minnesota Veterans
Congress remains absolutely committed to supporting our veterans and passing legislation that benefits them and their families. As a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans, I have a unique privilege of making sure that our military families receive federal funding they have earned. I'm proud to say we have once again provided advanced funding for the VA Department.
There has been a lot of heated debate in Congress over the last year, but everyone is in agreement about supporting the veterans community. Between 2007 and 2010, Congress passed landmark legislation geared toward assisting our veterans. Our work is not done yet and I remain absolutely committed building upon our legislative progress.
This discussion and town hall is an excellent opportunity to bring the public and private sector together in addressing the issues facing our veterans and to hear from you. I would like to thank each and every veteran here for your service to our country. The freedoms that we enjoy today would not be possible without the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. And for that, we are all forever grateful.
Minnesota has one of the most dynamic veteran's communities in the nation and I believe that when our elected officials, business leaders, and veterans community come together to tackle the big problems, we will succeed every time. I do want to begin our discussion, but first I'd like to quickly discuss some legislative initiatives we have taken on behalf of our men and women in uniform.
From my position on the Appropriations Committee, I'm proud to be playing a role to ensure that our veterans get the adequate funding they have earned. I'm pleased to say that for the past three years, Congress has increased VA discretionary funding by nearly 60 percent. We have also taken significant steps to provide our veterans with the jobs, benefits, and educational opportunities.
Since 2007 for example, Democrats in Congress have led the charge:
• Enacted the new Post 9-11 GI Bill to restore the promise of a full, four-year college education, that has already allowed over 600,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars to afford college.
• Strengthened health care for more than five million veterans, with a historic commitment -- including the largest single increase in the history of the VA -- for more doctors and nurses, better access for rural veterans, and expanded efforts to treat the signature injuries of the war
• Provided advanced VA funding through 2013.
• Provided our retirees with the benefits they have earned and resources they need. I pledge to continue protecting these benefits and will oppose any effort to do so.
These are significant reforms that will have positive impact on veterans all across the country. But we must do more. We must work together to build upon this progress in coming years.
The most important area where must make more progress on is jobs. The Great Recession has had a devastating effect on military families all across the country. In September, the unemployment rate for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was a staggering 11.7 percent, leaving 235,000 veterans struggling to find jobs. Younger returning veterans are facing an even more difficult challenge with more than one in five out of work and looking for a job last year.
I strongly believe that helping our veterans find employment when they come home is a moral imperative. Not only does it provide an income to support their families, but it is critical step in making successful transition back to civilian life.
The President has proposed the American Jobs Act, which would be a tremendous step in the right direction. Passage of this bill would do few very important things that will help our veterans find jobs now:
• Provide tax credits for hiring veterans looking for work.
• Strengthen much-needed training programs for separating service members, and ensure that service-members leave the military ready to enter the job market.
• Encourage businesses and government contractors to hire the brave men and women who have developed valuable skills and professionalism while in the armed forces.
These are common-sense initiatives that have received bi-partisan support in the past. Congress should pass this bill right away.
America has been faced with major economic challenges in the past. Each time we did, our country coalesced around our common interest in economic prosperity for our families and fellow Americans.
Our ability to overcome these challenges is due to our citizen's courage, dedication and spirit which are so often demonstrated by our men and women in uniform. With the leadership of Congress, business leaders, and our veteran's community, we will once again address these challenges and become an even stronger nation because of it.
For the first hour tonight, we will have a discussion with the panelists assembled here about veterans employment, health care, retirement and other issues. Following that conversation, we'll have time to hear from you.
We have an esteemed panel with us here tonight and I'm looking forward to a very constructive dialogue about the issues facing our veterans' community. I'm very happy to be joined by:
• Major Aaron Krenz, the Minnesota National Guard's Deployment Cycle Support Chief, has served in the Minnesota National Guard for over 20 years and has completed two combat tours in Iraq. MAJ Krenz is responsible for the national model "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" reintegration program, which supports Service Members and Military Families before, during and after their deployment.
• Maria Wetherall, Director of the Ramsey County Veterans Service Office – a proud Navy veteran and a graduate of St. Catherine University – she has been working in human services for 20 years and joined Ramsey County in February, 2009.
• Annette Kuyper, Director of Military Out reach for the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs - She currently leads the Yellow Ribbon Community and Company Program throughout the state to connect and coordinate organizations, agencies and companies to provide resources and support to Service Members, Veterans and Military Families.
• Barbara O'Reilly, Director of Employment and Women's Initiative for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. A retired Lieutenant Colonel who deployed to Afghanistan and served nearly 22 years with the Army and the National Guard. While with the Guard she served as the chief of the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program.
• Michael Rosecrans, Minneapolis VA Health Care System - a 21 year retired Navy Veteran, he has served as Congressional Liaison/Patient Advocate for the past 5 years.
• Chris Campbell – a Program Support Specialist with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve since 2007, he is currently a Sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard, who deployed to Basra as part of the 34th Infantry Division Band. Chris previously served ten years active duty in the Air Force.
• Antione Waller, the Director of the VA St. Paul Regional Office – After serving as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, Mr Waller joined the VA in 1991. He came to Minnesota in September 2010 after serving as Director of the Wichita VA Regional Office.
• Jim Finley, Director – Veterans Employment Programs – Department of Employment and Economic Development, State of Minnesota
• Trista Matascastillo, Chair of the Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative Working Group. Trista served in the US Military for 16 years as a Marine, Trista and as an Army military police commander in the Minnesota National Guard. She works in community outreach for Habitat for Humanity.
We are also joined with representatives of several Minnesota employers:
• Mark Green – Director of Human Resources for the Northern Plains District of UPS,
• Ray Hokens – the Area Human Resources Manager for UPS
• Terry Simcox - Human Resources Coordinator, McKesson Pharmaceutical
• Kim Diemand - Vice President of Sales for McKesson, Marine Corps veteran
• Pauline Whelan, Director of Field Talent Acquisition at Ecolab Inc.