Column: Honoring those who serve
WASHINGTON — Last week I attended the Change-of-Command Ceremony where we honored Lt. Gen. (Brevet)(Retired) Richard Nash for his decades of service and saw him pass the leadership torch to Maj. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, who was sworn in as the new adjutant general of Minnesota’s National Guard. As Lt. Gen. Nash said earlier this year, “Our Minnesota National Guard and the entire state has contributed greatly in a period of history that will be looked back upon as a remarkably important time.” He continued, “We were always ready, always there.”
He was right. Our service members are always there for us. And we, in turn, must honor their service. At a time marked by the volatility of our politics, our commitment to our service members and veterans remains steadfast. We stand united, regardless of our politics: our veterans fought for our freedom and we need to be there for them.
When our service members put their lives on the line to serve our country, we need to make sure they are getting the health care they need when they come home. Amie Muller of Woodbury enlisted in the Air Force in 1998. After two deployments to Balad, Iraq where she was stationed next to one of the war’s most notorious toxic burn pits, she returned home. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 36 — half the average age for this form of cancer. When Amie passed earlier this year, she left three small children and her loving husband Brian behind. Since then, I’ve gotten to know and work with Brian. He’s made one thing clear to me: we can’t let these toxic burn pits become another Agent Orange.
So, as part of Amie's legacy, we are working to create a Center of Excellence within the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with the mounting evidence that thousands of veterans have gotten sick after being exposed to toxic substances burned in the large pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t a partisan issue, so I am working with one of my Republican colleagues to pass the bill.
And while our National Guard and Reserve Component members often serve with their active duty counterparts on the exact same missions, they are not always ensured the same compensation and benefits for their service. When they return home, our National Guard and reservists are often denied the education and health care benefits they counted on during their deployments. We need to close that loophole and make sure that members deployed on the same missions, who take the same risks, receive the same benefits.
And just as we have made a commitment to serving our service members, we have made a commitment to looking out for their families.
Since September 11, 2001, the Minnesota National Guard soldiers and airmen have deployed more than 26,000 times. Those deployments can take a toll on their families — especially their kids. That’s why it’s important for schools and teachers to know which students’ parents are service members, so they can help make special accommodations like setting up Skype during the school day so a young girl can talk to her dad who might be serving abroad. That’s what happens for students whose parents are in the active duty military, but not for those whose parents are Guard or Reserve members. We need to fix this, and I am leading bipartisan legislation to make sure that our Guard and Reserve forces and their families are treated equally.
On Veterans Day, we are reminded of the exceptional commitment and extraordinary service that our democracy demands and of all the brave men and women who have stepped forward to protect it. That same democracy demands we fight for our service members as they fought for us. As Lt. Gen. Nash said, they were “always there.” We must be, too.