By Senator Ted Stevens
May 23, 2008
As I travel home this year to observe the Memorial Day holiday, it is a great honor to accompany U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake, who accepted my invitation in December to visit our state.
Dr. Peake is a decorated combat veteran and former Army Surgeon General. His service in Vietnam earned him the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Prior to being appointed Surgeon General, he was a cardiac surgeon and commander in numerous Army medical posts. After a 38-year career in the military, Dr. Peake retired in 2004 as a three-star general. He is the first physician and first general to head the VA.
Dr. Peake brings strong leadership and commitment to the VA at a time when it faces great challenges. With our nation at war, growing numbers of returning soldiers depend on the VA to deliver the benefits and services they have earned. Our men and women in the Armed Forces give so much for our country. We must always ensure that our grateful nation gives back.
To properly serve every veteran, providing adequate health care and services to veterans in rural areas must be a priority. Nationwide, one in five veterans enrolled to receive VA health care lives in a rural area. In addition, research conducted by the VA has shown that veterans residing in rural areas are in poorer health than those in urban areas.
While Alaska has a relatively small population, we have a strong tradition of service with more veterans per capita than any state in the nation. Many of the difficulties faced by rural veterans throughout the country are even more evident in Alaska where distances between communities are great and health care facilities are limited.
Despite admirable efforts of the Alaska VA, many Alaska veterans who do not live near clinics in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Kenai, feel they are forgotten. New clinics in the Mat-Su Valley and Juneau will help, but veterans in more remote communities are beyond the VA's reach. Furthermore, Alaska veterans often must travel burdensome distances to receive specialized care at out-of-state facilities.
Senator Murkowski and I had these issues in mind last year when we authored legislation directing the VA to study the need to improve access to locally-provided care in areas far from VA facilities. Our amendment, which became law, requires an assessment of veterans' local access to medical services in remote rural areas being made available through partnerships with other government or local private health care providers. We look forward to the results of the study, and hope it will provide a blueprint for future progress.
Living in a remote area can also be an obstacle for veterans seeking to take advantage of their G.I. Bill benefits. That is why I authored an amendment to give many rural veterans an additional $500 to defray travel costs to attend college. Hopefully this provision, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, will be included in much needed legislation to boost education benefits for troops of the Global War on Terror.
Dr. Peake's decision to travel to Alaska on this important holiday shows his commitment to all veterans, including those in the far corners of our country, and signifies a willingness to work with your congressional delegation to address our state's unique challenges.
Moving forward, Senator Murkowski,
Congressman Young, and I will continue to work with the VA to
find solutions to the problems of Alaska's veterans. It is our
solemn responsibility to those who have bravely served this country.
Received May 21, 2008 - Published May 23, 2008
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