Sen. Susan M. Collins
As I travel throughout Maine, I see again and again an equally important quality among our veterans -- they continue to serve long after their days in uniform come to an end. In civic affairs, community projects, and charities, our veterans step forward, giving back when they already have given so much.
We are fortunate to live in a state that honors those who serve. Maine has more than 127,000 veterans – more per capita than all but two other states in the country. Last year, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of our nation’s very first veterans’ hospital, Togus in Maine, a medical facility that launched a network of hospitals envisioned by President Abraham Lincoln. Since 2003, the famed Maine Troop Greeters have provided warm welcomes and heartfelt send-offs to more than 1.5 million service members traveling through Bangor International Airport.
My own father is a World War II veteran who was wounded twice in the Battle of the Bulge. He earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. It was from him that I learned to honor and respect our veterans.
Recently, I was deeply honored to receive the Veterans of Foreign Wars 2017 Congressional Award from National Commander Brian Duffy. Ray Lupo, a member of the VFW National Council and long-time member of the Hampden VFW Post, nominated me for the prestigious award. Of all of the awards that I have received, this one is particularly special to me. For more than 50 years, the VFW Congressional Award has been presented annually to one member of the House or Senate for their significant legislative contributions on behalf of those who have worn the uniform.
As a proud life member of the VFW Auxiliary in my hometown of Caribou, I was delighted to be joined at the ceremony by a delegation from the Maine Department of the VFW, led by State Commander Steven SanPedro, and including many VFW members from Aroostook. The presence of National VFW Auxiliary President Collette Bishop and Maine Auxiliary President Kimberly Baldwin underscored the support on the home front for those who serve.
In presenting the Congressional Award on behalf of the 1.7 million VFW and Auxiliary members, Commander Duffy described my record of advocating on behalf of veterans, service members and their families, as well as strengthening America through strong national security programs. He said my presence and leadership on the Senate Appropriations Committee, including the subcommittees responsible for defense and veterans spending, as well as the Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Armed Services, and Intelligence committees, helped to support our veterans and safeguard our country.
He also commended my efforts to secure passage of critical quality of life programs, such as extended TRICARE coverage, military pay increases, and community-based outpatient clinics, programs which uphold the highest ideals and principles of the VFW. I also worked hard to save the ARCH program for veterans in Northern Maine, who live far from Togus. This year, the VFW and its Auxiliary are taking on the challenge of mental health among veterans and increasing support for our women veterans, issues I have long championed.
When our service members return home, we have an obligation to welcome them all the way home with the health care, educational opportunities, and support they earned and deserve. Our veterans deserve not only high-quality health care, but convenient access to it. That is why I am leading a bipartisan group of Senators in legislation to support the authorization of leases for vital medical facilities across the country that will allow veterans to receive outpatient care without the stress and difficulty of traveling to larger VA medical centers, which may be located far away from their homes.
In addition, the VFW and I are working on a bill to improve access to VA preventive care, the Veterans Preventive Health Coverage Fairness Act. Ensuring our veterans receive preventive care, in the exact same manner as is currently provided by the Department of Defense, can not only cut medical costs down the line by preventing disease and disability, but also maintains the health and well-being of our veterans.
Another priority of mine is to reduce the number of homeless veterans. As the Chairman of the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, I have fought to ensure the continued funding of the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program, which provides thousands of new housing vouchers to veterans each year. We have made real progress on this issue, with homelessness among veterans declining 47 percent since 2010.
I was touched by Commander Duffy’s mention of the perfect voting record I have been fortunate to be able to maintain during my Senate service – more than 6,200 consecutive votes. I noted, however, that this record pales in comparison to the devotion to duty demonstrated every day by the men and women of our armed forces.
Whether decades ago, like my father’s service, or in our time, like the 1.5 million service members who have been welcomed home at Bangor International Airport, the patriots who defend our freedom and the families who wait, worry, and all too often grieve, deserve our respect and support. The VFW and its Auxiliary keep that obligation faithfully, and I am grateful for their recognition.