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Hiektamp: Recommitting to our veterans

2014 is a milestone year. America’s longest war is winding down and most American troops in Afghanistan are finally headed home.

Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have deployed 2.6 million servicemembers from our military to fight in both countries — and many of them have been sent back for multiple tours.

As most of these troops have returned home, we have created a new, younger generation of veterans who we absolutely must support, just as we do veterans of past generations and wars.

This Memorial Day is a reminder of our commitments to all of these courageous veterans. We honor those who are deployed across the globe to preserve and protect our freedom, recommit to protecting our veterans, and support the families of all servicemembers and veterans. Most importantly, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. To all of them, we are forever in debt.

A few months ago, I was in Rugby visiting with workers at a wind farm. After visiting some of the windmills, I chatted with some of the workers over a quick lunch. The conversation about energy quickly turned when one young worker mentioned that he was a veteran. A few others in the small room said they too were also veterans.

They talked about the sounds — at home and at work — that make them jump and immediately put them back on the battlefield, and the varying levels of post-traumatic stress disorder they face. All of them nodded in unison when one said the sound of a whistle instantaneously brings him back because it sounds like a missile.

These young veterans have been able to integrate back into communities, find jobs and, for many of them, start families. They are fortunate. But others have more difficult times coming back, as the physical and emotional battle wounds too often leave harsh scars.

During my time in the Senate, I have been a staunch advocate for our veterans. It has been a privilege to push for better health care access, improve the awareness of PTSD, and make sure veterans and servicemembers of all eras have access to the benefits they deserve.

But there is still so much to do.

To help make sure we live up to the commitment to our veterans, I’m a strong supporter of comprehensive legislation — introduced by Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders — that takes many important steps to provide veterans with benefits and care.

It streamlines and improves the VA claims system, expands access to education benefits and improves access to health care. While I voted for this bill, sadly, it failed to move forward in the Senate. Have no doubt that I will continue to fight to pass this bill and for all of the veterans it supports.

Additionally, in the past few weeks, we have heard disgraceful reports of secret appointment lists at VA facilities and veterans kept waiting far too long for medical care. This should never be how our veterans — or anyone — are treated. We must do better. I’m working in the Senate to make sure we get to the bottom of this terrible situation as quickly as possible, hold those responsible accountable and find ways to rebuild our veterans’ trust in the VA.

Our commitment and responsibility to veterans is year round — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — because for our servicemembers, veterans, and their families, their service and sacrifice is never ending, and impacts them every day.

Let’s live up to our word, and give our soldiers, veterans, and their families the support they earned.

Heitkamp is a Democrat representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at