By Kate Reynolds
During the Utica Veterans Day parade and ceremony Sunday, Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, talked with The Times.
Duckworth joined the Illinois Army National Guard in 1996 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. While co-piloting a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, Iraqi insurgents hit it with a rocket propelled grenade. Her right arm was broken in three places and she lost both of her legs. Today she is fully mobile and is involved with the Fisher House Progam for veterans and their families. She is still active for weekend duties as a Major in the Illinois Army National Guard.
In Utica on Sunday as the guest speaker for the village's third annual Veterans Day Parade, Duckworth spoke to The Times about the importance of Veterans Day and the ways America is trying to improve the ways veterans are being cared for when they come home from the war.
Q. What can you tell us about your interest in the Fisher House Program? (A program that supports America's military in time of need).
A. I lived in a Fisher House. I was in Walter Reed Medical Center for four months. During that time, because of being able to live in a Fisher House, my husband was able to be with me during that time. Once I was released from the hospital, I stayed at a Fisher House with my husband because for the next nine months I had to be treated at the center's outpatient center. Being able to live at the Fisher House helped us out tremendously. Without it, we would have had no place to live during a very stressful time. So, this is a very personal issue for me. It's a personal connection. I'm interested in making sure that there are enough Fisher Homes available for all of our veterans and their families when they need them. It's my way of saying thanks and making sure that all of our veterans are taken care of with the least amount of stress.
Q. How do you see the care of veterans improving in the future?
A. Many changes have been made. And two weeks ago, President Obama signed into law an advanced appropriations budget for two years in advance. Before that, the VA was funded one year in advance. Well, as we all know, Congress is always late. The fiscal year began Oct. 1 and their still is no budget in place. Being funded one year in advance, the VA can't plan for the future. If we need a new hospital or new equipment, we can't wait. We need to be able to act on these types of things immediately. Now we can.
President Obama has also given the VA the largest budget increase in over 30 years. He's committed $25 billion over the next five years. He doesn't feel that it's a commitment or an obligation to care for our veterans. He feels it's his covenant to do so. We are now seeing Vietnam veterans retire at the age of 60 or 65. They no longer have health care through their employers so they are now looking to the VA. And our younger veterans are coming home with special needs of their own. So, we are making improvements and I'm looking forward to seeing more improvements on how we care for our veterans in the future. They certainly deserve our help and thanks!
Q. When a veteran is in need of care, what is the first step they, or their families, should take to get that help?
A. They need to find a Veterans Service Officer. There are several places available to find one. Call the State of Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs (www.veterans.illinois.gov). Call your local American Legion or VFW. Now you can certainly go online and submit the paperwork. But I really recommend getting a Service Officer because they are experts at helping you complete the paperwork and get it all submitted properly.
Q. Finally, what makes a day designated to honor all of our veterans so important to America?
A. I've spent a lot of time in this area, especially with my training at the Marseilles Illinois National Guard Training Site. As a matter of fact, I am serving this weekend. And here in Utica, this is all perfect. When I look outside and see a Main Street like this with flags flying, families, kids playing while they're waiting for the parade to start, the open hometown stores open for the day, these are just some of the examples of things we should be grateful to all of our veterans. Without them, none of this would be possible.
Sometimes we forget the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On Memorial Day we honor our dead veterans. On Veterans Day, we honor all veterans that are dead and all of those veterans still living that have chosen to give their lives for our freedom and American way of life. That's why this day is so important to all Americans. That's why it's so important to me.
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