Our Veterans Deserve Our Thanks and Our Service

For the seventh consecutive Veterans Day, we find our nation at war. It is essential that we take time to express our thanks for the service and sacrifice of the men and women who have worn the cloth of this nation. But we must always take care that our gratitude -- as a people, society and country -- extends beyond symbols and words.

As a 31-year veteran of the Navy, I understand the sacrifices service members make and some of the personal and professional challenges they face coming home. I believe it is our duty to serve them with the same respect and dignity with which they served us.

Our newest generation of veterans, including the more than 1.6 million Americans who have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces difficult challenges. They were deployed more frequently and for longer periods than their predecessors had been in decades. They were sent into harm's way with less than the best equipment, many were ''stop-lossed'' when their time was up, and tragically they saw 234 of their fellow Pennsylvanians pay the ultimate price for our freedom, while over 1,500 from our commonwealth were wounded. Out of the service, they face the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression and, partially as a consequence of conflicts with no front lines, more than 20 percent live with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The way we care for our veterans is a reflection of our society. We cannot neglect them in their own time of need, as we did following the Vietnam War.

I ran for Congress to bring to Washington the principle of accountability that governs our armed services. Unfortunately, there have been too many instances where our veterans and their families have suffered because accountability has lapsed in our Congress and Veterans Administration. Because congressional leaders from the mid-1970s until 2006 did not provide necessary resources or oversight, there has been a disturbing series of poor policy decisions and incidents of mistreatment and mismanagement at VA medical facilities.

Our returning Vietnam vets did not receive the care they deserved and in 2003 the VA decided to exclude hundreds of thousands of veterans, from World War II through the Gulf War, from access to health care through the VA medical system. Recently we learned that millions of dollars in improper performance bonuses were assigned to senior VA managers in 2007 and 2008 while hundreds of thousands of disability claims remained backlogged.

Despite that history, I am certain President Obama selected the right person in Gen. Eric Shinseki as his Veterans Affairs secretary to lead the necessary reforms in this organization.

Congress is also trying to do its part. We have approved the largest increase in funding in VA history, passed legislation to re-enroll hundreds of thousands of veterans making as little as $29,000 who were locked out of VA services, and restored full four-year college scholarships for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I strongly support the plan by President Obama and Gen. Shinseki to end homelessness in our veteran population. The extraordinary number of homeless veterans speaks volumes of our failure to confront and heal the burdens they carried home from war.

My district office is open seven days a week to meet the needs of my constituents, including veterans who have to negotiate frustrating bureaucracies. We're also doing our best to help veterans during this recession by working to increase SBA loans to veteran-owned businesses. In the past year, SBA loans to veteran-owned businesses in western Pennsylvania have decreased dramatically and I am committed to reversing that trend. As veterans are unemployed at even greater levels than the rest of the population during this recession, we must increase the percentage of veterans employed by the VA to more than the current 29 percent. We must encourage the VA and other employers to hire more vets, empower more veteran service officers from veterans organizations to assist veterans and their families, and streamline the process for disabled vets to apply for state property tax relief.

This is not about bigger government. It is about better government. We can and must keep working to meet our commitments to our returning service members. The honor of our veterans and their families -- past, present and future -- demands nothing less.

As a former 3-star Navy admiral, Joe Sestak is the highest-ranking veteran elected to Congress and is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.