Hello, this is Senator
Barack Obama and today is Thursday, May 18th, 2006.
We've been having some
big debates here in Washington; obviously Iraq and Iran are still
high on the list. We've also been immersed in the immigration bill,
which is actually making more progress than I had expected. I'll
be frank with you - I was concerned that after negotiations broke
down that we were not going to be able to get a bill out of the
Senate. I think, actually, at this point that we may get a comprehensive
bill out of the Senate, then the challenge is going to be making
sure that we're able to negotiate with House members to reconcile
differences and ensure that we've got a piece of legislation that
both deals with border security, ensures that employers have to
verify the employment status of their employees, and also gives
a pathway to citizenship to the 11 to 12 million people who are
already here but undocumented.
But I want to just shift
gears today. This is an issue that is important to an awful lot
of people in Illinois, its also important to a lot of people in
states around the country. Some of you may recall, if you've been
following the work that we've been doing, that I'm on the Veterans
Affairs Committee and however you feel about the war in Iraq, however
you feel about past wars, I think all of us, Republican, Democrat,
urban, rural, whatever your demographic, should share in the belief
that when a young man or woman goes off and serves our country in
the military, that they should be treated with the utmost dignity
and respect when they come home. That should especially be true
for those who have suffered disabilities on the battlefield. Anybody
who's ever visited Walter Reed Hospital here in Washington and has
seen twenty year-olds and twenty-two year-olds who have had legs
amputated or suffered severe nerve damage I think understands they
have made an unbelievable sacrifice on our behalf and that we've
got an obligation to make sure that just as they are fighting on
our behalf that we are going to make sure that we fight for their
behalf when they come home.
It turned out that a number
of veterans in states including Illinois had been apparently short-changed
in terms of their disability payments. Typically, veterans who've
been injured receive some sort of disability payment. They are evaluated
by various regional offices of Veterans Affairs, and they are awarded
a certain percentage based on the kind of injury they've received
and the severity of the injury.
It turns out that in Illinois,
for a wide range of reasons, you had veterans who had been injured
getting paid much lower disability payments than veterans in some
other states - and these differences were substantial. Illinois
veterans, for example, were receiving 42 percent less per year than
some of the leading states. So, to give you an example, an average
disability payment to Illinois veterans would be $6,961. In New
Mexico, the top ranked state - same veteran, same disability - on
average, was getting $12,000 a year. So, obviously this wasn't acceptable
to me as a senator from Illinois, but it was unacceptable, I think,
to anybody who believes that any veteran who has served our country,
wherever they live, should be treated fairly and equitably. As a
consequence, we've moved forward and passed legislation last year
ensuring that, in fact, some of these differentials were dealt with.
We asked the VA to come to Illinois and other states that had suffered
some of these problems and made sure that, in fact, they started
assigning and retraining some of the people who were doing the evaluations.
The other thing is we insisted that the Veterans Administration
do outreach to people who have received disability payments all
these years and may have been short-changed. And so what happened
is starting this month, you had the Department of Veterans Affairs
sending out letters to disabled veterans in Illinois and several
other states indicating to them that they live in a state that has
received low average disability compensation and that they have
the right to open new claims, appeal what a veteran may consider
to be a bad decision, to get help from veterans service organizations,
in terms of processing these reevaluations that have been requested.
And so today I just wanted
to make sure that veterans were aware of this. I hope that we've
got some veterans on the podcast who may have been disabled and
are receiving benefits. If you live in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan,
Connecticut, Ohio or New Jersey, than you live in a state in which
the average disability payment is substantially lower than payments
to disabled veterans in other states. It doesn't mean that your
individual payment is necessarily too low; it may have been that
you actually were treated fairly by the VA, but there is a possibility
that because you live in one of these states (Illinois, Indiana,
Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio or New Jersey) that, in fact, you were
getting a lower disability payment than you should have received.
The VA should have sent a letter to you to contact you, to give
you an opportunity to have your claim reevaluated and if you have
not received a letter but you are a disabled veteran that was awarded
a disability payment in one of those states, then you can call 1-800-827-1000.
That's 1-800-827-1000, or you can get on the following website:
www.vba.va.gov/specialoutreach. I know that's a mouthful, so what
you can do is get on our website and we will post on the website,
the VA website that is designed to do this outreach. I hope that
all of you take a look at this if you are a disabled veteran because
we want to make sure that you have been treated fairly by the VA.
And for those of you who
aren't veterans, I hope that you will continue to be supportive
of our veterans. Many of them have a very difficult time adjusting
when they first come back home. I think any of us who can imagine
being on the battlefield in a place like Baghdad, perhaps seeing
one of your friends injured or killed, seeing yourself lose a leg
or an arm, experiencing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, you can only
imagine the difficulties in making the adjustment to civilian life.
In fact, one of the things
that I'm going to be monitoring very closely is how are we treating
the 100,000 plus veterans who are going to be coming home and to
make sure the VA has the capacity to provide transition services
for veterans who are leaving the service and reentering civilian
life, particularly National Guardsmen and Reservists who perhaps
did not expect to be fighting in a place like Iraq. It turns out
that if you catch a veteran and provide them good services on the
way out, they are much less likely to suffer Posttraumatic Stress
Disorder and can make the adjustment. If some of the problems they
may have as a consequence of being on the battlefield are not dealt
with early, then they can have long-term problems, which is one
of the reasons why veterans are seven times more likely to be homeless
than non-veterans. So, that's an amazing statistic to think about.
It indicates the enormous toll that war, of any sort, can take on
our young men and women. It's also a reminder for those of us who
are in civilian life but have the authority to authorize war do
so with a great sense of responsibility and caution.
Anyway, it's great to talk
to you guys as always. I will be back on this podcast next week.
In the meantime, I hope everybody will continue to monitor this
immigration debate. I may have something more to say about it next
week. In the meantime, I hope everybody will continue to monitor
this immigration debate. I may have something more to say about
it next week. Bye-bye.