Citizen soldiers have defended America from the very founding of our country and each soldier continues the work of generations of Americans who have served bravely before them. These soldiers are the living manifestation of what is best about our country and we thank them for keeping us safe around the world. America must always repay them with her respect and support during their times of need.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to a group of 80 Maine Army National Guard soldiers who are currently at Camp Atterbury in Indiana preparing to depart for a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. The Augusta-based 240th Engineer Group includes soldiers from all walks of life and all professions- including one of my very own staff members, Matt Walker. As Matt said to me before leaving for training, he was proud and prepared to represent his country and that no doubt is the same for the rest of the 240th Engineer Group. I know that our mission in Afghanistan could not be in better hands, Maine hands.
Another soldier that I am particularly proud of is Sergeant Derik Cormier. I recently received official confirmation from the U.S. Army that Sergeant Cormier has received a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge for his bravery while serving in Iraq. He was shot in the leg during an insurgent attack in November of 2005 and he has since returned to Iraq to finish his tour of duty. Sergeant Cormier joins the ranks of other brave men and women who have received this military distinction for their outstanding valor. Derik is indeed a true son of Maine we can all be proud of.
Recently, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, returned from a seven-nation overseas tour where he met some 12,000 of our men and women in uniform. While there, he had a simple message for the enlisted men and women he was visiting in these faraway countries: “Thank you.” But while we extend our thanks to those who are currently serving our country, we must not forget those who have finished their tour of duty and are once again living as civilians.
Specifically, we must consider the impact of President Bush’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 budget on veterans’ health care. The President’s budget proposes offsetting some of the increase in the Veterans Affairs’ (VA) budget by instituting new enrollment fees and increasing co-payments for some veterans. This would force veterans to shoulder an even greater burden for their healthcare. I have long opposed such user fees and Congress has defeated similar proposals in the past. The budget also contains a 2.6 percent cost of living adjustment effective January 1, 2007 to recipients of disability compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation, and clothing allowance.
When so many of our brave servicemen and women are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA’s most critical priority is addressing the immediate and pressing needs of our veterans. While I am pleased that the President’s budget increased funding for the VA to cope with a rising number of veterans in need of medical care, I remain adamantly opposed to allowing this additional fiscal strain to be borne by those who have served. We should never compromise our commitment to those who have given so much to our country, and I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to provide a level of funding for Veterans health care that reflects our gratitude and meets veterans’ needs.
We must always make certain to thank our soldiers for their bravery in defending America and their commitment to the finest ideals of our nation. Soldiers now serving our country must know without a doubt that America will always stand behind them and recognize the tremendous sacrifices they have made on our behalf. I pledge to fight to make sure that this is the case, starting with ensuring that funding for our veterans health care is not threatened by budget shortfalls.