Honoring and providing for our veterans cannot be one-day-a-year effort

A few years back, a Southern Illinois veteran named “Lieutenant Dan” — yes, just like the movie — gave me a red and yellow woven bracelet. It represented the colors of the Marine Corps. He had one simple request: That when I wear it, I remember for whom I work.

As a Marine and the father of a Marine, that bracelet has special meaning to me. Every time I take my seat in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I look down at my wrist and see those red and yellow threads and am reminded of the generations of men and women who fought and sacrificed so much to keep us free.

On Veterans Day, we join together as a community to honor the estimated 55,000 veterans who call Southern Illinois home. We thank them for their service and offer a prayer for their well-being. But the effort to honor and provide for our veterans can’t be a one-day undertaking.

In Congress, no matter how gridlocked things have become, we’ve often been able to work together to serve the needs of our veterans. This year we’ve passed numerous bills to help our nation’s veterans, many of which I have been proud to cosponsor. For example, the Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act is legislation I introduced with Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) to address the crisis of veterans’ suicide, improving suicide prevention efforts and mental health resources at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Every day, 20 veterans die from suicide across the country. However, suicide prevention coordinators at the VA, professionals who work to identify high-risk veterans, have reported they don’t have all the resources that they need. Our bill would ensure that these men and women have the tools required to do their job so that they can provide veterans with crucial mental health resources.

The committee has also been working to make sure that Blue Water Navy veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in the coastal waters during the Vietnam War receive the benefits they’ve earned. After the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act was signed into law earlier this year, we held multiple hearings to keep the VA accountable in addressing these health-related claims.

These resources are vitally important to improving the lives of so many veterans across the country. However, they are only as good as the VA staff hired to implement policies and provide care.

That’s why I introduced the VA HELP Act. This bill requires the VA to establish qualifications for each human resource position at VA hospitals, ensuring that VA Medical Centers operate at the same level as private hospitals. It’s common sense, bipartisan, and was passed unanimously by the House last Congress. I am hopeful that it will pass once again and will be signed into law by the president.

Visiting local VA hospitals is critical

However, serving Southern Illinois’ veterans is not limited to the bills we pass or the hearings we hold. It’s also visiting our local VA hospitals, meeting with those who served, and bringing national leaders to the district to hear from our veterans first hand.

Last month, I invited Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Dr. Phil Roe (R-TN) back to our district so that he could see and hear firsthand the issues that veterans in Southern Illinois face. We started at the Marion VA, meeting with staff and patients. We moved on to O’Fallon, where we hosted a health care roundtable with doctors, administrators, and medical professionals who provide treatment to our veterans. Then we headed to Caseyville for a public veterans forum and over to St. Louis to visit the John Cochran Veterans Hospital. This firsthand feedback is critical to ensuring we’re best addressing our veterans’ needs in Washington.

The night before Dr. Roe joined me, I participated in one of my favorite activities as a member of Congress. I drove over to Veterans Airport in Marion to welcome home a Southern Illinois Honor Flight, a service that periodically flies veterans to Washington, D.C. to tour the monuments and memorials of battle. Since I’ve been in office, I’ve tried to greet veterans on the flight either in Washington or in Marion to thank them for their service. The crowds of thankful Americans standing at the gate seem to get bigger each year.

To the 55,000 veterans in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District and 22 million nationwide, thank you for your service.