PNC Paul Warner presenting Representative Gus Bilirakis with a certificate of appreciation.

 

Rep. Gus Bilirakis’s Speech at the 123rd Annual Convention

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Before I begin, I would like to welcome Secretary Wilkie to the Tampa Bay area and to his new position. I have enjoyed working with him in the past, and look forward to continuing to build upon that relationship in order to benefit our nation’s heroes.

That is my primary mission in the United States Congress—serving those who have served our nation.

It is wonderful to see so many of you come together — united in your faith– to promote Americanism, preserve the spirit of comradery, instill a love of country and service in others, advocate for your fellow Veterans, and honor the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country.

First and foremost, I want to thank each of you for your service. I want you to know that I understand the price of freedom is not free, it is paid by men and women like you—those who have bravely defended our country and the sacred ideals we cherish.

Sadly, some of these heroes never return and others live with wounds, both visible and invisible, that they carry with them throughout their lives. Families of our Veterans also pay a high price so that all of us may enjoy the blanket of security our military provides.

So, it is not enough to recognize your service with a simple thank you – but rather we must continuously seek ways to honor your service and sacrifice.

As Vice-Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, I have made it a priority to ensure that our Veterans receive the best possible care and all of the benefits they have earned through their dutiful service to our nation.

We have made significant progress in recent years, but there is still more work to be done. I would like to take a moment to share some of the highlights of our work in this area.

A total of 26 bills that will improve the lives of Veterans have been signed into law since January of 2017.

Improving access to care and benefits within a timely manner continues to be a priority. Our work to finally rectify the injustice that kept Blue Water Navy Veterans from accessing care and benefits due to their Agent Orange exposure is something that will make a tangible difference in the lives of so many Veterans. The Senate must take immediate action, as these Veterans cannot afford to wait any longer.

Speaking of waiting, with half a million Veterans waiting on a VA decision about their disability claims as of 2017, modernizing the appeals process for disability claims was extremely important. It has been a year since this critical legislation was signed into law. I believe we still have more work to do in this area because, in my opinion, Veterans are still waiting way too long, however, this law is a huge step in the right direction.

The MISSION Act is another important victory for Veterans who were struggling to navigate the VA CHOICE and community care programs. This new law ensures Veterans receive timely and convenient access to care, whether through the VA or a community provider – a decision which will be made by the Veteran and his or her doctor.

Improving Educational Benefits for Veterans has been another important theme for our Committee. Through the Forever GI Bill, we expanded educational benefits and removed the time restriction for use.

House and is awaiting Senate action, will also ensure Veterans are not penalized when a bureaucracy delays processing of the GI payment.

Ensuring accountability and oversight of the VA is one of the primary functions of our committee. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was signed into law one year ago helps achieve this goal by streamlining the process of firing or disciplining senior VA employees while expanding protections for employees who report wrong doing.

One additional measure that is very near and dear to my heart is the Transition Improvement Act, which passed the House the end of July. As you know, we spend a minimum of six months preparing service personnel for their military assignments and a maximum of one week preparing them for successful reintegration into civilian society.

We owe these brave more than that, and local Veterans in my community who were able to provide direct input into this bill, tell me that this is one of the most serious challenges currently facing the men and women who are exiting the military. I am hopeful that the Senate will take action on this important issue.

Our committee will not rest until Veterans have access to high quality care and the benefits they have earned.

For me personally, I am focused on ensuring Veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits during their service in the middle east, and as a result are suffering illness and disease have access to medical care and disability benefits they need. This is the agent orange of our era –and we have to learn lessons from the mistakes that were made and the countless Veterans that suffered and died while the government took decades to do right by our heroes. We cannot let that happen again, which is why I have filed legislation to address this issue immediately.

I also want to provide you with a brief update about this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. It reflects a real win not only for active duty military personnel and Veterans, but for all Americans who can have great confidence that this legislation will make our nation safer. The bill supports necessary increases in topline funding to support our troops and readiness recovery.

As part of the rebuilding of the military, it increases the size of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Naval and Air Reserve, as well as Air Guard, in accordance with the full request by Secretary Mattis.

It allocates funding to provide the largest pay raise for our troops in nine years, begins to rehabilitate and replace worn out equipment, starts overcoming the crisis in military aviation by putting more aircraft in the air, restores America’s strength at sea, makes critical investment in missile defense and nuclear deterrents, allows key investments in other critical military capabilities to confront aggression, and address threats around the world, including those from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

It also protects the United States from malicious technology from Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei by banning those companies from doing business with the United States Government or any entity that does business with the United States Government.

Additionally, it advances innovative technologies that will reform the way our nation will fight and win wars.

Finally, it includes language I authored which extends the travel benefit of riding on military aircraft, whenever there is space available- to those Veterans who are 100% disabled. This is something that is currently only enjoyed by active duty and military retirees.

President Truman once said that “America was not built on fear.  America was built on courage, imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

I would qualify that statement…it is the courage and unwavering determination of men and women, like you, who answered the call to serve who made and continue to make our country great.

We all owe you and your families a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid; however, I renew my pledge that I will continue to serve as your voice in Washington and to always ensure that my actions and record of service reflect my heartfelt gratitude for your service.

Thank you. May God Bless you and continue to Bless the United States of America.

Volume 72. Number 3. Fall 2018