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Newest Vets Receive Priority for VA Medical Care

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2005 – The estimated 120,000 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan receiving medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs are getting top priority as they access some of the world's best-quality medical treatment, the secretary of Veterans Affairs said.

R. James Nicholson spoke to American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel in anticipation of National Veterans Awareness Week, which began Nov. 6 and continues through Nov. 12.

Although the wounded veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom represent just 2 percent of the VA's total patient load, "it's a very important 2 percent because these are young people who have come back from the combat zone," Nicholson said.

As a result, the VA is "giving them priority and making sure we are taking care of their physical and mental needs" so they can continue to enjoy productive lives, he said.

Seeing the nation's young people return home from combat reinforces the message that freedom comes at a high cost, Nicholson said. "Freedom is not free, and they are paying the ultimate price," Nicholson said. "And so, they will be taken care of and given whatever (health care and related assistance) they need ... for the rest of their lives."

It's gratifying to watch the recovery these wounded veterans make, particularly when hearing many of them say they want nothing more than to return to duty with their units, Nicholson said.

But for those unable to do that, Nicholson said, the VA's responsibility is to help them see beyond their wounds and recognize that they can continue to live productive lives. "That's part of our mission, to show them all the things they still can do and not have them focus on the things they can no longer do," he said.

While the nation gives special consideration of its veterans this week, the VA continues its longstanding commitment to the nation's veterans year-round, Nicholson said. For the past 75 years, the VA has provided health services and other benefits to veterans, living up to the promise made by President Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural speech: "To care for him who has borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."

Over its history, the VA has created the world's most comprehensive system of assistance for veterans, including what Nicholson described as "world-class health care." Some 237,000 VA professionals provide health care to more than 5 million veterans through 187 medical centers and 860 outpatient clinics.

A computerized medical record system -- one Nicholson said he hopes will serve as a model for the Defense Department and other organizations -- helps eliminate hospital mix-ups and ensures more thorough patient care, he said. In addition, VA remains a leader in medical research, from studies involving Parkinson's disease to a recent breakthrough in immunizations for shingles, he said.

Nicholson said Congress and the Bush administration have demonstrated through increased funding for VA health care that they remain committed to ensuring veterans receive the top-quality services they deserve. VA funding has increased more than 50 percent since 2001, he noted.

"Veterans of every era can rest easy knowing that access to what has been described as the finest integrated health care system in the country will remain undiminished -- especially for low-income veterans, those with service-connected disabilities (or) special needs or who have recently returned from combat," Nicholson said.

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R. James Nicholson

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