Two weeks before Veterans Day, and eight long months after news of neglect at Walter Reed hit the headlines, the Bush administration finally responded publicly to the flurry of reports ordered when the scandal broke.
Earlier this week, President Bush met with the co-chairs of his Wounded Warriors Commission, former Senator Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, to discuss executive implementation of their recommendations, and to announce recommendations for legislative action that he will be sending to Congress. Among the recommendations are a streamlined disability process, support for families, and treatment for troops' mental health problems.
It's about time. For over two months, the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala Commission seemed to be gathering dust. In the veterans' community, there has been real concern that this Commission Report would join countless others that were received with great fanfare, and then promptly forgotten. On Tuesday, veterans like me were encouraged to see that the president has not forgotten the promises he made at the start of the Walter Reed debacle.
While the intentions of the Commission's recommendations should be applauded, there are outstanding problems that will undoubtedly impede their accomplishment. With the Secretary of Veterans Affairs' post filled by a temporary appointment, and a VA budget that is more than two weeks late, implementation will be a challenge.
One of the Dole-Shalala Commission's major recommendations is already doomed. The Commission suggested that coverage be provided for family members of wounded troops under the Family Medical Leave Act. Earlier this month, this protection was denied not due to bureaucratic hurdles or funding shortfalls, but because of the President's decision to veto SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorization.
Today, Congress had an opportunity to override the President's SCHIP veto--and should have voted to do so. Two largely overlooked provisions of SCHIP would address the urgent issue of protecting military families as outlined by the Dole-Shalala Commission. Sections 621 and 622, under Subtitle C, provide one year of employment discrimination protection to family members caring for grievously wounded troops, and extend permitted work leave for these caretakers from three to six months.
Right now, when a service member is critically wounded, friends and family members put their lives on hold to be at their loved ones' bedside during the weeks and months of recuperation. Annette McLeod is one such family member. When her husband, Specialist Wendell McLeod, was injured while serving in Iraq, she rushed from her Chesterfield, South Carolina home to be with him at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. Caring for her husband, who sustained multiple injuries to the back and head, became her full time job. After three months at Walter Reed, the human resources department at the factory where she had worked for 20 years told her she had exhausted her time off. She was forced to give up her job and all of her benefits.
Annette's story is all too common. Thanks to improved battlefield medicine, thousands of troops are surviving catastrophic injuries, but they face long and painful recoveries at home. This puts enormous financial and emotional strain on their loved ones. According to the Dole-Shalala Commission, one in five severely wounded troops says a family member or friend has had to give up a job to provide care. Unfortunately, current law offers caregivers few employment protections. All too often, they lose their jobs, pushing their families to the brink of financial ruin.
Today, Congress had the opportunity to defend the family caregivers of wounded heroes by overriding the President's SCHIP veto. Unfortunately, the legislation that would have given these families much-needed breathing room failed. So now, instead of focusing on recuperating, many of our injured service members will have to worry about where their family's next paycheck will come from.
Any member of Congress who claims to support the troops should have voted to override the President's SCHIP veto today. When this vote failed, so did a critical protection for families of our most grievously wounded troops. And now, more family members like Annette will face unfair and unnecessary financial burdens during what is already a more difficult time than most of us can imagine. Our wounded heroes and their families deserve better.