Veterans are such a vital part of our community, and San Diego has one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the nation, approximately 225,000. And every year, 15,000 more servicemembers muster out of the armed forces right here in San Diego. When these Americans volunteered to serve our country, we made a commitment to provide them with certain programs and benefits in exchange for their service. I will continue to work tirelessly to build a Congress that not only preserves our existing veterans programs, but improves and expands their reach to help our returning veterans adjust easily back to civilian life.
San Diego has a strong veterans community prepared to offer services, but many veterans struggle to be connected with the help they need. I helped launch an organization called zero8hundred that works with service organizations and the military to get our veterans the services and support they need to make a successful transition to civilian life. In Congress, I have gotten legislation passed that supports public-private partnerships like zero8hundred that bring together military leaders and veterans organizations.
I am committed to ensuring the VA has the resources and support to provide the absolute best possible level of service. It's immoral and unpatriotic that some veterans have to wait months for health care. We need a culture at the VA from the top to the bottom that is focused on serving veterans, not the bureaucracy. In 2013, when partisan gridlock held up the VA Access, Accountability, and Choice Act, I offered a motion that was credited with breaking the gridlock and getting it passed. This bill makes it easier for the VA to fire bad employees, extends in-state tuition for veterans and their families, and allows veterans facing long wait times or who live far from a VA facility to receive private health care paid for by the VA. I also introduced the 21st Century Care for Military & Veterans Act to make healthcare more accessible to rural veterans in order to improve available services and reduce overall costs, and voted for improved mental health funding and service levels. Moving forward, we must continue to make physical and mental health more affordable and accessible with better use of telehealth, accountability, and additional funding for the VA.
I have led the charge to improve access to mental health services for active duty soldiers and for veterans when they return home. I introduced a bill that would allow the VA to hire more marriage and family therapists to serve veterans. A similar provision was included and passed as part of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act. I also helped introduce and pass a bill that would ensure that veterans who have trouble doing therapy in a group setting because they took part in classified missions get the individual care they need. Coronado’s Dr. Howard and Jean Somers, who tragically lost their son to suicide after he left the military, brought this idea to me and I worked to make it law. My office has helped recover almost 1.3 million dollars in earned benefits for our veterans and their families, giving them better access to health care, counseling, and job training, and I also voted for increased funding for mental health and PTS treatment and research.
I have voted to increase military pensions, cosponsored the Veterans Pension Protection Act, and continue to oppose privatizing veterans’ benefits. We made a promise that these benefits would always be there to assist those who served our country. At a time when too many active servicemembers and veterans are struggling to make ends meet, our focus must be on protecting and expanding benefits, not creating additional risks through privatizing these benefits. Since being elected, my staff and I have focused on providing the highest level of service to constituents who are having difficulty navigating the federal bureaucracy. As a result of theses efforts, more than $1.3 million in benefits owed to them have been restored to San Diego veterans over the past three and a half years.
The unemployment rate for our veterans has recently fallen, but there’s still much more to do. It is of great concern to me that the unemployment rate for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans aged 18 to 24 is much higher in San Diego than elsewhere, and well above unemployment for non-veterans. This year I offered and passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that encourages the Department of Defense to prioritize the hiring of veterans for military construction projects like those at Coronado and Miramar. I introduced the Veterans Employment Transition (VETs) Act to provide incentives to businesses for hiring recently discharged veterans, and voted for improved on-the-job and apprenticeship programs through the VA. It’s a good start, but we need to continue our investment in job-training programs. I will continue to support programs that provide not just job training, but also help our service men and women re-enter their lives as husbands, fathers, mothers, and wives.
I support the GI Bill because it rewards young people eager to earn a college education in return for serving their country. I voted to ensure veterans have access to in-state tuition rates, and for the Veterans Education Equity Act to make sure that veterans get the same benefits whether they attend public or private institutions.
I am an advocate for affordable housing for veterans and military families. It’s estimated that there are more than 57,000 homeless veterans in this country on any given night. That’s unacceptable. I introduced the Shelter our Servicemembers Act to provide elderly veterans with affordable housing and wraparound services through a pilot program, and voted for the Homes for Heroes Act to create staff support to ensure veterans get fair access to housing and homeless assistance. I’ve also voted to expand foreclosure protections for veterans, to provide increased housing assistance for low-income, disabled veterans, and to make homeless veterans eligible for Department of Labor job training programs. And since 2013 I have led the charge to change an outdated formula used to distribute federal homelessness resources that has disadvantaged San Diego. After a breakthrough this year, we are one step closer to getting San Diego its fair share of resources to help the homeless and build more affordable housing for our veterans.
Our veterans need to know their Congressional representative will stand up, fight, and preserve these programs and benefits. When I arrived in Congress, it was clear that we had allowed far too many veterans in need to fall through the cracks. Our system isn’t perfect yet, but I’ve worked across the aisle to move forward with commonsense solutions, and we’ve begun to address the gaps and improve services. With continued cooperation, we can make sure that we’re ready with the services our veterans need and deserve as they return home.