As we gather with friends and family this July Fourth for backyard barbecues and fireworks, we should take a moment to honor not only the values of freedom and liberty that make our country great, but also those who have fought to protect them. North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in the nation - a place where we pride ourselves on the support we provide to our military, our veterans, and their families.
America's servicemen and women put their lives on the line for our country every day, leaving behind their families and loved ones, to keep us safe. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I am committed to providing them with opportunities for future success.
I recently joined Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma in a successful effort to reinstate the Tuition Assistance Program for active-duty soldiers. This critical program, which allows service members to continue developing their skills and furthering their education, had been suspended as a result of sequestration.
Hundreds of thousands of our service members depend upon this program. In 2012 alone, 300,000 military personnel were enrolled for tuition benefits, and more than 50,000 degrees and diplomas were earned.
The Tuition Assistance Program also prepares our service members for a more successful transition into the civilian workforce. And with unemployment at 8.9 percent in North Carolina, this could not be more important.
George Sendelbach joined the National Guard because he thought it would give him the experience he needed to succeed in college and the means to afford it. But when the Army suspended the Tuition Assistance Program, George - who was only one year away from earning a degree from N.C. State University - wasn't sure how he would be able to pay for the rest of his courses. Now, service members like George face a brighter future knowing they will be able to complete their educations.
But our obligation to those who serve in our armed forces doesn't end when they leave the military.
To honor the service of our men and women in uniform, we must protect the promises we've made to our veterans. Unfortunately, with the current claims backlog at the Veterans Administration regional office in Winston-Salem, those promises are being broken.
I've been to this office, which processes claims from veterans from Fayetteville and across North Carolina, and I've seen the problem firsthand.
More than 34,500 veterans have been waiting more than 125 days for the Winston-Salem office to rule on their disability claims, and more than 23,000 of those veterans have been waiting more than a year. These figures are particularly appalling when you consider that Congress has provided the VA everything it has asked for in terms of funding, increasing the VA's budget by 40 percent in the past four years.
After writing to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to ask that he dispatch senior personnel to the Winston-Salem VA Regional Office, I am pleased to report that he will be sending the undersecretary for benefits upon my request. The VA is also directing an additional 25 employees to Winston-Salem to process claims. This is a step forward, but I will not be satisfied until the VA eliminates the backlog and establishes a procedure to prevent future backlogs from developing.
In the face of this backlog, my office will also continue to do anything we can to help veterans receive their hard-earned benefits. To date, we have closed more than 2,700 VA cases, and many of those are veterans seeking the benefits they deserve. I encourage any veterans needing assistance to contact my office to see if we can help.
America and North Carolina are better, stronger and safer because of the contributions of our brave men and women in uniform. As someone from a military family, this is more than just policy; it's personal. I know the sacrifices they and their families make, and I will always fight to ensure we are honoring their service in word and deed.