November 11, 2013

Udall Honors America's Veterans in Veterans Day Speech at the N.M. State Veterans' Home

Announces plans to introduce legislation to improve access to health care for veterans in rural communities

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. - Today U.S. Senator Tom Udall commemorated Veterans Day in Truth or Consequences, where he participated in a ceremony at the State Veterans' Home to honor and remember New Mexico's veterans.

"Veterans Day is an opportunity to pause from the rush and chaos of our daily lives, to pay tribute to the heroes among us, and those no longer with us," Udall said. "Our veterans and their families deserve our gratitude and respect not just today, but every day. These men and women have sacrificed deeply to keep America safe and uphold freedom within our great nation, and I will never forget our sacred responsibility to provide them with the support they deserve."

Udall delivered the keynote address in the ceremony at the Veterans' Home, a nursing facility serving veterans. In his speech, he thanked veterans for their sacrifice for the freedoms and security we enjoy. He also discussed a bill he will introduce later in the month as part of his continued efforts to support veterans. The bill would expand health care access for veterans living in rural areas.

When Udall initially took office as a Senator, the first piece of legislation he successfully passed was an amendment to the Recovery Act that expanded tax incentives for employers who hired recently returned veterans. From this early piece of legislation on, Udall has continued his commitment to veterans, and fought to ensure that they return home from service to the benefits they have earned and the support they deserve.

Udall strongly supported the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides veterans a full four-year college education. He introduced the Burn Pits Registry Act, which was signed into law earlier this year and helps veterans exposed to environmental hazards in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also cosponsoring legislation to extend the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, a bipartisan bill to help veterans transition their specialized skills to civilian jobs and renew tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed veterans, particularly our wounded warriors.

"America's commitment to supporting our veterans must be as strong as their commitment to defending our freedom," Udall said. "Today we honor military veterans past and present, and are reminded of the heroism and sacrifice that forever indebts us to these true patriots."

The following are his remarks as prepared for delivery at the ceremony:

Thank you for inviting me to share a few words with you. First, I want to thank the New Mexico State Veterans' Home for hosting us today. It is great to be here with you.

The Veterans' Home says it best: "As a team, we proudly serve those who already have." When it comes to our veterans, that's exactly what we should be - a team. Working together and honoring those who defend our freedoms.

Today, we remember the heroes among us and those who are no longer with us. They deserve our thanks. They deserve our respect. Not just today, but every day. For their courage and for their sacrifice. So, first, to all our veterans here today, and to their families - thank you.

We have a proud tradition of military service in our state. The Navajo Code Talkers. The Defenders of Bataan. With us today is one of the survivors of Bataan - Julio Barela, who I understand is 98 years old.

As many of you know, Julio was a member of the Army's 200th Coast Artillery Regiment. He was with the 1800 New Mexicans who defended Bataan and Corregidor.

During World War II, the courageous defenders of Bataan helped rally our nation. The Japanese attack on the Philippines in December of 1941 came just hours after Pearl Harbor. Julio and his fellow soldiers were outnumbered and out supplied. But for four months they fought on, and they bought the Allies time to regroup.

They fought till the last possible moment, and then they faced the infamous Bataan death march - three and a half years of horrific conditions in captivity. They were, and always will be, an inspiration to all of us.

Julio, thank you for your service.

On Veterans Day, we remember all the men and women who served to keep our nation free - who fought in Europe and the Pacific to stop fascism, who held the line in Korea, who endured jungle warfare in Vietnam and who braved the deserts of Iraq.

We also remember those who are still serving - in Afghanistan and - in other parts of the world. Every day, they wake up far from home, both at sea and in faraway lands. And every day, they stand the watch, and they do the job they promised to do.

Last month, I attended a naturalization ceremony in Albuquerque. That was a great occasion, watching these new citizens take their oaths, and seeing the pride on their faces. They were new citizens not just because of an oath, or a piece of paper, but, because of an idea - the idea of freedom. We are all citizens because of our veterans - because of the men and women who fought for, and some who died for, our country.

Our veterans have valiantly gone where few would tread. But few truly know the burden they-and their families-have borne. We must always remember the debt we owe them. Our veterans honored their commitment and kept their promise, and we must keep ours.

Keeping our promise to veterans is not just an obligation - it is a privilege.

I was proud to sponsor the Burn Pits Registry Act because of the veterans who increased awareness about their exposure to toxic waste from burn pits. This act was signed into law earlier this year. The VA is now in the process of finalizing the registry to help veterans exposed to environmental hazards in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide vital research and specialized care.

As I travel our state, I also hear from many of our rural veterans about the special challenges they face in getting health care. Challenges of long distances, of turnover of doctors and nurses, and of struggling with PTSD and other mental health issues. It is because of their voices that, later this month, I will introduce a bill to help veterans living in rural and highly rural areas so they get the health care they need. None of our veterans-including over 6 million living in rural areas-should be left behind.

Congress should also renew and extend the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. This is good for our economy and good for our communities. We are strengthened by the skills and talents of veterans. It is not just up to Congress though - our businesses should continue to seek out and hire veterans.

I will also continue to push to speed up the disability claims process for veterans. Too often, they are kept waiting for far too long, and that has to change.

We have a solemn duty to ensure that veterans receive the benefits they have earned, and the support they deserve.

In April, I was honored to present the medals of the late Marcelino Gonzales to his family. Marcelino was a Korean War veteran. He wrote me a letter last year. He was very ill, and he said, "I do not know how much time I have left, and would like to see my medals before I pass...I would be so grateful for your assistance in helping me receive the medal that is owed me to share with my family."

Mr. Gonzales was a trusted leader in his company - taking the point position during patrols, making sure there were no bombs or ambushes and protecting his fellow soldiers. Mr. Gonzales sought the medals he had earned. Not just for himself, he wanted them for his family. His medals were one last gift to his family.

He was proud of his service, and he wanted his family to have that legacy of his life. That is the kind of courage we celebrate today, and that is the kind of generosity that is the honor of our country.

We should always strive to be worthy of the sacrifice of our veterans - of brave Americans like Marcelino Gonzales and Julio Barela and all the veterans here with us today. They are true patriots and we are forever in their debt.

Thank you, and God bless you.