Measures to help veterans stripped from defense bill

The Colorado Springs Gazette

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Washington, DC, December 18, 2013 | By Dave Philipps | comments

In a rush to approve a bill to fund the country's military, the Senate sent to a vote Wednesday a version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act that has been stripped of local lawmakers' amendments aimed at helping combat veterans.

The House of Representatives passed a nearly identical version last week. A final vote is expected in the Senate on Thursday.

Earlier this year, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Mike Coffman, both of Colorado, introduced amendments to study a surge of troops discharged from the Army for minor misconduct, some of whom were injured combat veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of their discharges, these troops lost veterans benefits.

Bennet and Coffman's moves came after an investigation by The Gazette in May that showed such discharges had increased 67 percent since 2009 and hit combat troops the hardest.

A few days after the investigation was published, Coffman, an Iraq War veteran, introduced an amendment creating Congressional hearings into the subject, saying at the time, "There is a problem. We need to analyze the problem and take action."

The House of Representatives passed that amendment in June.

In November, after additional reporting by The Gazette, Bennet introduced an amendment calling for a Government Accountability Office report on the subject, saying "This is the data we need to make good choices. Twenty-two veterans take their life every day in this country. That is what spurred our interest in this issue. They deserve better."

Both amendments were stripped from the final bill as the Senate did not allow amendments to be added before the vote. Both lawmakers say they will find other ways to press reforms.

"This is a classic example of Washington dysfunction preventing common-sense progress," said Bennet spokeswoman Kristin Lynch. "We were worried this might happen, especially as the clock on the calendar year started winding down, so we have already begun discussions with staff on the Senate Armed Services Committee to work with them on a letter to the GAO requesting this report."

Coffman could not be reached for comment. In June, he said he would continue to press for legislation that protects combat veterans from losing medical benefits. The bill does include other items pushed by local lawmakers, including $242 million for construction at Fort Carson and a provision blocking funding of expansion of an Army training area in Pinon Canyon in southeastern Colorado.

Veterans groups who supported the amendments for combat veterans said they will continue to push for action.

"This is an issue that is increasingly important for our members," said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group with 300,000 members. "It's not controversial to want better care for our veterans."

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