San Diego has one of the largest populations of veterans in the nation — approximately 240,000. And every year, 15,000 more servicemembers leave the armed forces right here in San Diego. When these Americans volunteered to serve our country, we made a commitment to help care for and support them after their service. This commitment must be honored. As a former member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I will always work across the aisle to achieve the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families. I will continue to work tirelessly to preserve our existing veterans programs, and to improve and expand their reach to help our returning veterans adjust back to civilian life.
San Diego has a strong veterans community prepared to offer services, but many veterans struggle to get connected to the help they need. I helped launch an organization called zero8hundred that works with service organizations and the military to get our veterans the services and support they need to make a successful transition to civilian life. In Congress, I’ve worked to pass legislation that supports public-private partnerships like zero8hundred and that bring together military leaders and veterans organizations.
It’s immoral and unpatriotic that some veterans have to wait months for health care. In 2013, when partisan gridlock held up the VA Access, Accountability, and Choice Act, I offered a motion that was credited with breaking the gridlock and getting the bill passed. This bill makes it easier for the VA to fire bad employees, extends in-state tuition for veterans and their families, and allows veterans facing long wait times or who live far from a VA facility to receive private health care paid for by the VA. I also introduced the 21st Century Care for Military & Veterans Act to make health care more accessible to rural veterans by improving available services and reducing overall costs. And during this session of Congress, I introduced and passed a bill to drive down health care prices for veterans further by increasing transparency and competition within the VA health care system. As we move forward, we must continue to make physical and mental health care more affordable and accessible with better use of telehealth, accountability, and additional funding for the VA.
I have led the charge to improve access to mental health services for active duty soldiers and for veterans once they return home. I introduced a bill that would allow the VA to hire more marriage and family therapists to serve veterans. A similar provision was included and passed as part of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act. I also helped introduce and pass a bill to ensure that veterans who cannot participate in group therapy because they took part in classified missions get the individual care they need. Coronado’s Dr. Howard and Jean Somers, who tragically lost their son to suicide after he left the military, brought this idea to me and I worked to make it law. I’ve also worked to pass two other bills named in honor of their son, Daniel Somers. The Sgt. Daniel Somers Network of Support Act became law at the end of 2019 and establishes a Network of Support so servicemembers’ family and friends can prevent isolation and suicide. Similarly, the Sergeant Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support Act directs the VA to create a network of support that shares information with designated family and friends of veterans to guide and empower them as they help their loved ones navigate life after service. This bill was included in the COMPACT Act and was signed into law in December of 2020.
In 2021, I introduced the Veteran Peer Specialist Act, which builds upon my previous work in 2018 to expand peer counseling services for veterans within the VA. My office has helped recover more than $1.6 million in earned benefits for our veterans and their families, giving them better access to health care, counseling, and job training.
I have voted to increase military pensions, cosponsored the Veterans Pension Protection Act, and continue to oppose privatizing veterans’ benefits. In the 115th Congress, I introduced and passed legislation that was included in the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act of 2018, to provide education and job training benefits to guardsmen and reservists. We made a promise that these benefits would always be there to assist those who served our country. Since being elected, my staff and I have focused on providing the highest level of service to veterans who are having difficulty navigating the federal bureaucracy. As a result, more than $1.6 million in benefits owed to them have been restored to San Diego veterans since I first took office.
The unemployment rate for our veterans has recently fallen, but the unemployment rate specifically for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans aged 18 to 24 is high in San Diego, and above the rate for non-veterans. In the 114th Congress, I offered and passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that encourages the Department of Defense to prioritize the hiring of veterans for military construction projects like those I’ve secured funding for at Coronado and Miramar. I introduced the Veterans Employment Transition (VETs) Act to provide incentives to businesses for hiring recently discharged veterans, and voted for improved on-the-job and apprenticeship programs through the VA. I will continue to support programs that provide job training and help our service men and women re-enter their lives as husbands, fathers, mothers, and wives.
I support the GI Bill because it rewards young people who are eager to earn a college education after serving their country. In 2018, I introduced and passed legislation to make sure all Purple Heart recipients receive their full GI Bill education benefits – regardless of active duty length. I voted to ensure veterans have access to in-state tuition rates, and for the Veterans Education Equity Act to make sure veterans get the same benefits whether they attend public or private institutions. In 2018, I introduced and helped pass a bill to provide guardsmen and reservists the same educational and employment benefits, regardless of whether their service was voluntary or involuntary.
Our veterans need to know their Congressional representative will stand up, fight, and preserve these programs and benefits. When I arrived in Congress, it was clear that we had allowed far too many veterans in need to fall through the cracks. Our system isn’t perfect yet, but I’ve worked across the aisle to move forward with commonsense solutions, and we’ve begun to address the gaps and improve services. During the Trump administration, I offered and helped pass an amendment to prevent any decreases in funding for veteran homelessness programs. In the 116th Congress, I introduced the Veteran HOUSE Act, which expands eligibility for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges to participate in the HUD-VASH voucher program. This legislation became law as part of the annual defense bill at the beginning of 2021. With continued cooperation, we can make sure that we’re ready with the services our veterans need and deserve as they return home.
I am committed to ensuring the VA has the resources and support it needs to provide the best possible level of service. I consistently opposed attempts by the Trump administration to privatize the VA. We need a culture at the VA from the top to the bottom that is focused on serving veterans, not the bureaucracy. But forcing veterans into a for-profit health care system is not the answer. To strengthen the VA, I helped pass legislation to reform the veterans’ appeals process and repair the claims backlog. I’ve also supported legislation that removes barriers to firing poorly performing VA employees.