Keeping up our bargain with service members

Published Nov. 11, 2012

At a time when our country faces great uncertainty, one thing has remained constant — the men and women who stand on the front line to defend the freedoms and values upon which this great country was built.

The service of our nation's veterans spans every day of every year of every decade of our country's existence. Over the past two centuries, our world has changed and the duties of the armed forces have changed with it. However, the bravery, dignity and honor of our men and women in uniform remain firm.

Veterans Day is an opportunity for us to not only thank this country's heroes of war, but also to remember the selfless sacrifices made by our service members and their families to maintain peace at home and abroad. We are forever in their debt and, therefore, must continue to uphold our end of the bargain by keeping them a top priority when they return home.

Today, we have a new generation of veterans who face different challenges and obstacles than their counterparts of years past. Nearly a quarter-million brave men and women living in the Tampa Bay area have served in our armed forces, and it is our responsibility to ensure they have increased access to the educational and health benefits they earned in service to our country.

Injuries like posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are oftentimes the silent wounds of war, going unnoticed because of the stigma associated. However, they are not character flaws, and we need to change the culture that discourages many members of our armed forces from seeking the medical attention they need, particularly when suffering from a mild traumatic brain injury. This is why, as vice chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, I have worked diligently to draw attention to issues like traumatic brain injuries, bringing Congress, the Army and the NFL together to discuss ways we can partner to make our research dollars extend further. It is also why I have made it my personal mission to see proposals like Heroes Ranch — a local, family-friendly, specially designed post-acute, long-term care facility — come to fruition.

In this difficult economy, we must work to enhance benefits for our veterans in the most cost-effective way possible. Making great strides in that effort, I sponsored HR 4057, which the House passed in September, to increase the effectiveness of current veterans' educational programs. This legislation arms this generation of post-9/11 veterans with the necessary information that will allow them to gain skills to re-enter the workforce and make a smooth transition from the battlefield to civilian life.

Our veterans define the meaning of patriotism and heroism, and they embody the American spirit that has forged a better and brighter future for our nation's children and grandchildren.

This Veterans Day, may we celebrate and remember all those who have served, are serving or will serve this country.

Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, a Republican, represents Florida's 9th District in the U.S. Congress. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.