I barely recall what I ate for breakfast yesterday let alone what I was doing four years ago. But ask Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers where he was and what he was doing on October 17, 2004 at 11:34am, and he'll start rattling off the details.
Bowers was on a civil affairs mission in Falluja, Iraq when sniper fire hit the scope on top of his rifle and exploded in his face. Suffering shrapnel wounds and hearing loss in his left ear, Bowers survived the attack because of the rifle scope his father had purchased for him and sent to him overseas. He now marks every October 17th as his "Alive Day," the day he narrowly escaped death and an anniversary he'll never forget.
This week, Iraq veteran, Purple Heart recipient and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's (IAVA) Director of Government Affairs, Todd Bowers, will go before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to present IAVA's 2009 Legislative Agenda. It's pretty miraculous to watch a guy who was shot in the face just over 4 years ago testify before Congress to advocate for his fellow veterans--and it's an honor to stand by his side.
2009 will be a crucial year for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of which are returning from war only to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Congress has already taken some steps to help veterans expand their economic opportunities - including the passage of the "Post-9/11" GI Bill. But more efforts must be made to ease the transition home. And this includes, first and foremost, prioritizing the needs of veterans in the proposed economic stimulus package.
As the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the stimulus package today, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have a lot at stake. Unemployment numbers are bad across the board, but new veterans are being especially hard-hit. Foreclosures in military towns are increasing at four times the national average. And hundreds of thousands of veterans who may be relying on disability benefits as a source of income have been left waiting by the massive backlog of claims. As President Obama and Congress continue to wrangle over details, the final plan must keep the needs of generations of veterans in mind.
But the work doesn't end after the stimulus package is complete. Since 2007, Congress has provided record budget increases for the Department of Veterans Affairs, but 19 of the past 22 VA budgets have been passed late and hospitals have been forced to ration care. Funding the VA one year in advance would go a long way towards helping the largest health care provider in the nation plan critical new programs--and it wouldn't cost a dime. Among other top veteran priorities for 2009, Congress must also act to ensure better screening for invisible wounds such as PTSD and TBI; end the passive culture within the VA; and guarantee correct implementation of the new GI Bill.
We've given the 111th Congress and the new Administration a clear plan of action. Now it's your turn to help. To make sure that Congress is hearing our message loud and clear, we're bringing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country to DC to take part in our Storm the Hill advocacy week. You can support their efforts in DC so that more veterans, like Todd Bowers, can share their stories.
From Falluja to Washington, DC, we've come a long way. But there is still much more to do. With your help, we can make sure Congress finally listens to our newest generation of veterans - and gives them the heroes' welcome they have earned.
Crossposted at IAVA.org.