By Congressman Andy Barr
The recent observance of Veterans Day reminds us all that veterans make up the very heart and soul of every community throughout the Commonwealth. Their sacrifice to our country in defense of our freedoms is a debt that we will never be able to repay. As a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the grandson of two WWII Veterans, and the son of a Vietnam-era veteran, I have the privilege of diligently working with veterans across the country to address the issues that matter most to them. Thankfully, we have made great strides in the modernization of policies that will ensure our veterans are taken care of after returning from service.
I am proud to work directly with veterans in Central and Eastern Kentucky through the Sixth District Veterans Coalition, which meets quarterly with me to discuss their input regarding legislation impacting veterans and military matters. Meeting with this group gives me the opportunity to hear first-hand what concerns our veterans have and discuss legislative proposals to address their needs. After hearing the concerns of the veterans in the Sixth District, I come back to Washington and collaborate with my colleagues in the House of Representatives and on Committee to address the issues at hand.
Working with other members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I was an original cosponsor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (H.R. 299). This legislation restores the presumption of service connection for Blue Water Navy Veterans exposed to Agent Orange during their service, ensuring they receive proper treatment for the health conditions they acquired in service to our nation. This bill was signed into law by President Trump on June 25, 2019, giving these Navy Veterans the healthcare they deserve.
Last Congress, the MISSION Act was signed into law and on June 6 of this year its Community Care Program went live. This important program gives veterans greater access to high quality, timely health care close to them, allowing them to use community providers if VA services are difficult to access or too far away. In my role on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I have been able to ask VA Secretary Wilkie about the rollout to ensure the VA is properly funded and make sure there is no gap in veterans receiving care. I was proud to vote for the MISSION Act to provide veterans with access to quality care that fits their personal needs.
Earlier this year I introduced legislation (H.R. 2196) to improve the Forever GI Bill to help provide additional GI Bill eligibility to student veterans who are pursuing an undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degree. The improvements of my bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and were signed into law by President Trump on July 31st. We have already seen student veterans access this additional benefit and take advantage of this program at universities in the Sixth District.
Finally, I am a cosponsor of the IMPROVE Act to provide grants to community organizations to help combat veteran suicide. Of the approximately 20 servicemembers and veterans who die by suicide every day, only six sought care from the VA in the two years preceding their death. We must move the needle on this heart-wrenching statistic and it is time we support community organizations who are able to reach veterans who do not interact with the VA. And as such, I have been a chief advocate for innovative therapies for veterans like Equine Assisted Therapy that allows veterans with mental, social, or physical impairments to work with horses on their road to recovery. In a recent Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, I discussed with VA Secretary Wilkie the role Equine Assisted Therapy can play in suicide prevention efforts and secured his support of the program.
Since the Commonwealth’s inception, Kentuckians have continued to volunteer in engagement after engagement, war after war, putting on the uniform to go to faraway lands to defend our nation and our Commonwealth. They are following in the bootsteps of frontiersmen, militiamen, and soldiers who have bravely fought and sacrificed over the years so that you and I may enjoy the freedoms unique to the United States of America. We cannot relegate remembering our veterans to one day out of the year, but must stand up daily for their needs and build upon the sacrifices they have already made.