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Amy Klobuchar: Keeping our promise to veterans

By Amy Klobuchar

U.S. Senator, D-MN

On Memorial Day, Minnesotans will join together to honor the men and women in uniform who have served our state and protected our nation. We especially recognize the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, but we also recognize all who have served and were fortunate to make it home.

Among these are nearly 3,000 Minnesota National Guard members from the First Brigade Combat Division (known as the Red Bulls). In recent weeks, they've been returning after a yearlong deployment in Kuwait to assist the drawdown of our military forces in Iraq.

I've been at many of the community welcome home ceremonies where families, friends and neighbors greeted the returning troops. There is nothing more heart-warming than to see an eager child rushing into the arms of a parent who has just returned home from military service.

Minnesota doesn't have an active duty military base, but we do have a long and proud tradition of military service with our National Guard and Reserves.

Although Minnesota ranks 21st in population, we have the fifth largest National Guard contingent in the country. Since 9/11, more than 25,000 Minnesota Guard members have been deployed overseas.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the essential role of our citizen-soldiers and the unprecedented sacrifices they've been called upon to make.

The National Guard and Reserves were not built to serve as an active-duty force for prolonged periods. Yet, at times, as many as 40 percent of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been Guard and Reserve troops.

These repeated mobilizations and overseas deployments have been tough for families and local communities

That's why in 2007, the Department of Defense created the Post Deployment /Mobilization Respite Absence program (PDMRA) to recognize the extraordinary sacrifices of our service members and their families. PDMRA provides extra leave days to service members who are deployed beyond their standard rotation cycle.

The purpose is simple. Troops who serve multiple deployments above and beyond the call of duty deserve extra leave time at home with their families as compensation.

But what should have been simple and straightforward somehow got tangled up in red tape.

Under the original PDMRA policy, Guard members and Reservists who served more than one year out of six could be awarded up to four extra leave days for each extra month of active duty. Last fall the Defense Department changed the policy and reduced the four days down to one or two, depending on the location of service.

When the Pentagon changed the policy, it should have made clear that troops currently serving on active duty would be grandfathered in under the original policy. But it didn't.

As a result, in the middle of their deployments, nearly 50,000 active-duty Guard members and Reservists learned that an important benefit already promised to them would not be honored.

That was wrong.

You would think it might be pretty simple for the Defense Department to correct its mistake. Of course, that wasn't the case. Even though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed that a mistake had been made, he insisted that only Congress could fix it.

So I introduced legislation in the Senate and Minnesota Representative John Kline, himself a Marine Corps veteran, took the lead in the House.

Our bipartisan legislation specified that all of the Reserve Component troops originally eligible for the full PDMRA benefit should receive what was promised to them. Earlier this month, we secured passage of the legislation, and the president signed it into law.

This is a problem that should never have happened. But it did. And it should not have taken an act of Congress and the signature of the president to fix it. But it did.

In the end, what's most important is that our nation kept faith with our dedicated men and women in uniform. When they signed up to serve and defend our country, the door was open and they were welcomed in. When they return home and look for their hard-earned benefits, they shouldn't find a door that's closed with red tape.