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The Real Spirit of Memorial Day: Put Veterans First | Commentary

For us, as the commanders of our nation’s three largest veterans’ organizations, Memorial Day is a time of solemnity more than celebration, of remembrance more than recreation. Of course, we don’t begrudge anyone who observes the traditional start of summer with a barbecue, picnic or other festivities. But we do hope that our fellow Americans will take at least a few minutes to recognize the reason why May 26 was a national holiday: To honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our nation and preserve our freedom.

Equally important, we believe that Memorial Day isn’t only about paying homage to those who gave their lives — it’s also about taking action to ensure the needs of the families of those we’ve lost and the injured survivors of war are provided for.

This compact we make with those who serve — that in return for their sacrifice, a grateful nation will do everything possible to ease their burdens and create opportunities for them to lead high quality lives — must be treated as sacred if America is to live up to its highest ideals.

Though supporting veterans ought to be one issue that rises above partisanship, this principle is in danger of becoming yet another victim of the gridlock that has paralyzed Congress. Unfortunately, this compact could become just another hollow promise unless Congress begins to show more interest in making good policy than in scoring political points.

Exhibit “A” is the fact that veterans appropriations bills have been passed on time only once in the past 17 years. For 16 consecutive fiscal years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has had to wait days, weeks and often months to find out how much money it will have in order to serve America’s heroes, as partisan wrangling has led to brinkmanship over debt ceilings and shutdowns. Over the past four years, the average wait time has been a whopping 116 days — nearly four months.

This is unacceptable and inexcusable. And make no mistake — it has imposed great hardship on veterans and the families of the fallen.

The unpredictability and uncertainty facing the Department of Veterans Affairs year after year has been a factor in the appalling processing backlog of disability and pension claims. It has threatened to delay vital research, and construction and maintenance projects. During last fall’s government shutdown, work stopped on more than 250,000 disability claims waiting appeals and burials at national cemeteries were put in danger. Had the shutdown continued for a couple more weeks, even veteran disability checks could have been halted.

Veterans should not have to pay the price for our dysfunctional Congress. Fortunately, there is a simple, commonsense and proven solution. Since 2009, the VA health system has been put on an advance appropriations cycle, allowing for a seamless, predictable funding stream. This has proven enormously successful — so much so that even during the government shutdown, VA hospitals and clinics were able to remain open without interruption. All we have to do is expand advance appropriations to the rest of the VA.

Bipartisan legislation to do precisely that has already been approved by the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. The Putting Veterans Funding First Act — sponsored by Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, and Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine, and by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and John Boozman, R-Ark., — has the enthusiastic endorsement of our organizations and dozens of other veterans groups. But ironically, the bill seems to have been stalled by — you guessed it — congressional gridlock. Even though it’s a rare piece of legislation that has strong support on both sides of the aisle, the House and Senate leadership has yet to schedule it for a floor vote.

In an all-out campaign to break the logjam, the millions of members of our organizations contacted Congress the week of Memorial Day to demand House and Senate floor votes on the Putting Veterans Funding First Act. We urge Americans readers who share our conviction that America must restore its sacred compact with our veterans to do the same.

For millions of veterans and survivors, the ceremonies and remembrances that take place on Memorial Day are priceless. However, these men and women deserve more than just words, they have earned the right to expect deeds to match. After the speeches and ceremonies are done, when Congress returns to work, they can help fulfill our promises to those who sacrificed for our country by holding a vote to pass the Putting Veterans Funding First Act. America’s veterans deserve no less.

Joseph W. Johnston is the national commander of Disabled American Veterans, William A. “Bill” Thien is the commander-in-chief of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Daniel M. Dellinger is the national commander of the American Legion.