Memorial Day is a day we pay tribute to the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our country safe and free. This year, Memorial Day takes on even greater meaning to me, as I just returned from an oversight visit to various World War I and World War II American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) sites. As chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I have oversight responsibility of ABMC’s work, both at home and abroad. ABMC employees have made it their life’s work to make sure the sacrifice of the men and women who laid down their lives wearing the uniform of the United States of America is never forgotten. Walking those hallowed grounds that saw so much bloodshed for the cause of liberty is an experience I will never forget.
As time passes, it can become difficult to remember the horrors of war. Even spaces that were once sites of vicious battles can be turned into peaceful, beautiful memorials where we can reflect, but for the loved ones of the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, the cost of war is never far from their minds and hearts. They see it in the empty seat at the Thanksgiving table, and they feel the loss every day of their lives — even on the most joyful of occasions. We owe it to those men and women — and their families — to make sure we’re honoring their sacrifice and delivering on the commitment we’ve made to those who serve. I carried this mission with me as I visited sites like Belleau Wood Battlefield, and when I paid my respects to three Tennessee brothers at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. I carry it with me when I sit in on the dais as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and it guides every piece of legislation I introduce and every vote I take that will affect the lives of our heroes and their families.
Recently, for the first time ever, the committee came together to pass legislation to right one of the wrongs of the Vietnam War. Currently, Blue Water Navy veterans are prohibited from receiving the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange because current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) policy is to limit the presumption to veterans who actually set foot in Vietnam or served in inland waterways. As a result, thousands of Blue Water Navy veterans have been denied benefits for conditions they may have developed because they came into contact with herbicides. The bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 — introduced by Rep. David Valadao, California Republican, and now headed to the House floor — would extend the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange to Blue Water Navy veterans.
The VA estimates that there are 6.6 million living Vietnam veterans and that there will only be 4.4 million remaining in 10 years. On average, we lose 523 Vietnam veterans every day. To simply wait for these veterans to die is not an option. I wholeheartedly believe we owe it to the brave veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam War to provide compensation benefits for conditions they may have developed because of exposure to Agent Orange. Passing this legislation is a promise kept, and you can rest assured I will continue to do my very best to honor all who have served by delivering the compensation and benefits they have earned. In today’s political climate, it’s not always easy, but — to put it simply — we owe every man and woman who has honorably served this country a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay, especially when they make the ultimate sacrifice.
This and every Memorial Day, my prayers go out to the loved ones of the heroes who have laid down their lives so you and I can enjoy the freedoms we hold dear. I often turn to scripture to find adequate words to express my gratitude for the men and women who serve this country, and I was moved when I recently visited Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery — a site that was added to ABMC’s portfolio last January — and read the words etched in the marble there. II Samuel 1:23 says, “And in their death they were not divided. They were swifter than eagles. They were stronger than lions.”
• Rep. Phil Roe, M.D., Tennessee Republican, is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He also serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee.