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Anthony J. Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, speaks at a press conference Wednesday at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Principi came to visit injured troops at the hospital and will attend this weekend's events in Normandy, France, commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Anthony J. Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, speaks at a press conference Wednesday at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Principi came to visit injured troops at the hospital and will attend this weekend's events in Normandy, France, commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. (Lisa Horn / S&S)

LANDSTUHL, Germany — The head of the Veterans Affairs Department visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Wednesday to tell injured servicemembers that the VA is looking out for them.

Reaching out to veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom is part of a new VA initiative to inform servicemembers of their benefits and to ensure their transition from active duty health care to the VA system is free of red tape, VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said during a brief news conference following his visit at the hospital.

“A servicemember doesn’t have to wait until after they’re discharged to go to the VA for health care or benefits delivery,” Principi said.

“They can get that while actually on active duty before they get their discharge papers.”

While at Landstuhl, Principi visited about 40 patients and said he was inspired by their patriotism.

“Whether [servicemembers] are on active duty and we’re caring for them close to their home while they’re on convalescent leave, or if they’re discharged, we have an enormous responsibility to make them whole as best we can; to try to repay the debt we owe to them,” said Principi, a Vietnam veteran and father of two sons who served in Iraq.

Principi said by aligning the Department of Defense and VA electronic medical records systems, the two organizations can provide better care. He added that in light of this expansion, the VA’s budget has increased from $38 billion in 2001 to $65 billion.

For the first time in its history, the VA now has full-time social service personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Principi said, who assist veterans with benefit applications prior to leaving the service.

Representatives also visit overseas military hospitals, such as Landstuhl, which have high numbers of seriously injured patients who may be eligible for VA care.

Benefits offices are currently open on 136 military installations stateside.

Plans are also under way to build four spinal cord injury centers, and two blind rehabilitation centers in coming years, Principi said.

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