On Memorial Day, we honor the men and women who have served and given their lives for our nation. These Americans deserve our utmost respect and admiration, today and every day.
Alaska has lost servicemembers in conflicts ranging from the Battle of Attu to the Global War on Terror. They left their homes to fight for our country, selflessly and courageously and knowing they might never come back. We can never fully thank them for their ultimate sacrifice, but we must try.
Recent events, including the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, have evoked strong emotions in many veterans. Some were heartsick as the chaotic evacuation played out in real time, leading to questions about their service. The pain they feel now is in part because the U.S. presence should not have ended that way, but also because we saw what a free, fair and open Afghanistan might look like. And then it slipped away.
A total of 2,401 American lives were lost in 20 years of war in Afghanistan, but those heroes’ actions were absolutely not in vain. Our brave Arctic Warriors fought to fulfill the mission our country asked of them. We’re proud of what they accomplished, and for everything they did to show Afghanistan what it could be.
Afghanistan is also a reminder that freedom is not free – and that sometimes, the United States, led by our servicemembers, must bear the burden for others and give them hope.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has also stoked strong feelings. A number of veterans, including some from our home state, have felt a renewed call to serve to help stop the bloodshed and a new era of authoritarianism. Whether providing resources or volunteering their time and safety to go to Ukraine to assist, their actions again reflect the righteous virtues of America’s veterans — service before self.
What we’re seeing abroad — including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Russia in Ukraine — is the type of tyranny our servicemembers have fought and prevailed against. Our veterans, past and present, have answered the call, serving, fighting and giving all of themselves so that we can live our lives at home in peace.
One of the ways I honor the fallen is by working to advance initiatives in Congress to secure the health and wellbeing of our veterans. The same veterans who bore the burden abroad continue to carry the wounds of war at home, both seen and unseen, and are entitled to all of the benefits painfully earned through their service.
I’ve heard the needs of Alaska’s veterans firsthand. For many, the top priority is serious reform for how the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, provides health care and benefits for disabilities associated with exposure to burn pits.
Many veterans today are suffering from illnesses caused by toxic substances released by the open-pit incineration of trash at locations where there was no better option. The VA is required to provide care and benefits for conditions that were either incurred from or aggravated by military service, while effectively using taxpayer dollars to fund those services. Unfortunately, in some situations, the latter part of that mandate forces the VA to sit back while research is performed to build connections between service and care.
This is an area where Congress can, and is, stepping in. I support the establishment of a presumption of service connection, meaning that a veteran must only prove they served in a location on the toxic exposure register to tie their illness to their service. This will rapidly reduce the amount of time it takes for a veteran to receive needed care. Congress took similar steps in 1991 for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The same needs to be done for illnesses caused by burn pit exposure, now.
I’m part of several bipartisan efforts to resolve the issue of toxic exposure. And I’m hopeful that veterans’ issues like this one are an area where Congress will firmly reject partisanship to make meaningful and lasting change.
Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to all who have chosen to serve under our flag. On Memorial Day, we remember and pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate price by giving their lives. Their service to our nation will never be forgotten. We will continue to honor them by doing everything we can for those who now shoulder the burden, as well as those the burden weighs heaviest upon, sometimes well after their time in uniform.
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