Citing his own case as the perfect example, Army Capt. Dan Berschinski told attendees at The American Legion's Washington Conference Commander's Call that the cost of military health care is well worth any price tag.
Speaking to a full house of Legion family members on Feb. 28, Berschinski told his story: how he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in August of 2009 while leading his platoon on patrol, costing him both legs. Yet through state-of-the-art prosthetics and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Berschinski not only is walking again – the first servicemember to do so after having both legs amputated above his knees – but also has started his own plastic manufacturing and distribution company.
"I consider myself to be pretty lucky," said Berschinski, a West Point graduate who will retire from the Army in April. "I have one thigh left, and on my right side I actually have no femur left at all. Yet here I am, walking in front of you and standing at the podium to speak. That is a testament to our health care. The health care in the military medical system, and at Walter Reed specifically, is phenomenal. It is, bar none, the best in the world. The legs I am standing on at this very moment are available only to DoD amputees. These legs are designed to allow one-legged soldiers to return to combat if they so desire.
"The nurses were amazing, the doctors were amazing, the therapists are amazing. But really, one of the key contributors to my success has been the atmosphere that I have rehabbed in... with many other wounded veterans. It makes all the difference in the world because we have a support network."
Berschinski said funding DoD medical care is an investment in the future. "If anyone doesn't understand why you should take the time and spend the money to give me surgery, to give me rehab, to give me legs, I will tell you it will all get paid back down the road when I have this successful business and am hiring more Americans," he said. "That goes for everybody. As soon as you can get us back to work, it benefits the entire nation."
W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, updated Legion family members about VA's budget and the claims backlog. Gould said the fiscal 2013 VA budget, along with the 2014 advanced appropriations, will, "uphold our joint commitment to care for those citizen-soldiers who have borne the battle, and for their families." The 2013 budget request is $140.3 billion – an increase of 10.5 percent from the 2012 budget. The department's combined mandatory and discretionary budgets have increased by 50 percent since 2009.
"There are unprecedented increases in our budget," Gould said. "And they are matched by unprecedented improvements in our financial management at VA to make sure we spend that money wisely."
Gould said that while VA still has to work through its claims backlog, a new automated system will process every VA claim within 125 days at a 98-percent accuracy rate.
Gould thanked the Legion for its role in providing a place for veterans to share their experiences. "Organizations such as The American Legion go a long way toward... providing a safe place for veterans," he said. "The American Legion provides safe places across the country for veterans. You leave no veteran behind in your around-the-clock work to make sure that veterans health care, benefits and memorial services are fully funded and staffed by VA employees and supported by Legion volunteers who have only one mission: caring for our veterans."
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., received a strong reception when he criticized the partisanship often involved in congressional action – all while men and women are dying while serving their country. He read the names of four U.S. servicemembers killed in action in recent days.
"Think of the sacrifices these people made to allow us the privilege and honor of self-governing ourselves," Walz said. "We better start reflecting what we do (in Washington) to reflect the type of sacrifice, service and commitment to country that these four made."
While addressing budget cuts to the Department of Defense, Walz said that during a trip to Afghanistan, U.S. servicemembers he spoke to expressed concerns over their families' health care and their pensions. "We can make tough decisions, but don't you dare put those on the front lines first on the chopping block," he said.
Walz – a retired National Guard command sergeant major and the highest-ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress – thanked the Legion for its lobbying efforts. "Every time The American Legion's in town or every time your folks are on the Hill, I rest a little easier because I know they're getting it right and for all the right reasons," he said. "There are many places you can be. There are places you can take your talent, your resources. There's one very simple reason why you're doing this: you love this country with all your heart, and you recognize that if you're not here doing it, no one else will."
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., was recognized for being one of four members of Congress who introduced legislation that, after passing, amended the Legion's congressional charter. The House measure picked up 432 co-sponsors – the most for any piece of legislation ever – and passed in six days. Altmire said both the House and Senate measures got more support than any bill in history.
"When your leadership here at The American Legion came to me during the summer of last year and said, ‘Can you pass this modernization?' it came at a time when we weren't getting along on anything," Altmire said. "There was nothing that the Congress could agree on. There was no bill that could come up that there wasn't an argument or heated debate.
"When I started to take this bill around to solicit co-sponsors and make sure we could bring it to floor, what I found is that there was at least one thing we could all agree on, and that's you: the men and women who have served this nation so honorably."