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Congress can do Better by America's Veterans

By REP. JIM MATHESON

On Veterans Day, 1.4 million Americans serve on active duty. Many are in the line of fire. Celebrating and honoring military service members and veterans is even more important when our nation is at war.

During the past two and a half years, I have seen Utah soldiers and their families answer duty's call. I've joined the joyous crowds welcoming them home. I've shared the sad goodbyes as they have deployed. Utah troops have performed exceptionally in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the dangers.

Already, we have lost over 1,100 service members. More than 8,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded. Unfortunately, it appears casualties will rise as our forces battle insurgents in both countries. Every time I meet a soldier on this job, I am reminded of how fortunate we are that Americans willingly answer the call to defend this nation far from home.

Utahns have always proudly defended our country. My commitment is to continue providing our soldiers with the best equipment, training and resources, so they will be able to accomplish their mission and return safely. But our responsibility does not end there.

More than 26 million Americans - one out of eight U.S. adults-are veterans. Of those, 37 percent are age 65 or older. Benefits critical to their health and economic well being have-in some cases-been unfairly offset. One example is the so-called "widow's tax", or the reduction in payments to the surviving spouses of military retirees. For more than 20 years, Congress has tried to end the "widow's tax" and finally-in this year's defense bill-it adopted a plan to phase out the "widow's tax" over four years.

Here in Utah, 1,172 military spouses collectively lose $3.9 million in annual retirement benefits. The strongest advocates for ending this unfair system have been American veterans, many of whom never even stood to benefit from improvements to the system.

Our veterans know how much surviving spouses give to the nation. I agree with them that ending this penalty is a small token of appreciation for a family's sacrifice over decades of military service.

Veterans have also rallied to the need to provide full educational benefits to Reservists who serve on active duty for two or more years. I learned about this shortcoming from the Marine Reservists of Fox Company. Already more than 60 House colleagues have cosponsored my legislation to correct the problem.

Even though it seeks to help current service members, veterans throughout Utah are tracking the measure's progress and support the goal. There are other actions we must take to keep faith with veterans. We have taken steps to eliminate the Disabled Veterans Tax, also known as Concurrent Receipt. Approximately 3,100 Utah veterans lose out.

Veterans who retire with 20 years of honorable service and who also have a service-related disability can't collect both benefits concurrently. A partial solution, included in the fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization bill, addresses the cases of the most disabled and will phase in over 10 years.

Today, thousands of wounded soldiers seek treatment in military hospitals. Tomorrow, they'll need health care from the Veterans Administration. It is time we provide mandatory funding for the VA. We have played budget games with the VA for too long and every year it is shortchanged. The war in Iraq is the first extended-duty war the nation has fought with an all-volunteer force. Utah's citizen soldiers have fought well. Thirty-four Utah National Guard and Army Reserve units have been activated since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Utahns with loved ones in harm's way deserve leaders that not only support the troops in the field, but those who battle the effects of war after they come home. Duty, honor and service. These words are the focus of Veterans Day as we pay tribute to our military. I believe we honor them best by making their issues a priority year-round.





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