Senator Baker Speaks to Veterans of Foreign Wars at 2008 Annual Convention

Years ago, baseball’s Washington Senators were said to be: “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Our job, our responsibility, our obligation, is to make sure that Pennsylvania’s veterans are not just: “first in our hearts, first in our minds, and last in line for state-funded services.”

It is fitting and proper for those in public office to participate in remembrance ceremonies on the sacred days of our military history – Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Services Day, Pearl Harbor Day, D-Day, Flag Day. It is even better that we remember your service and sacrifices on all the days on the calendar, as we make decisions affecting your lives and fulfilling our obligations.

Ken Burns’ series did a terrific job of letting those who were part of the Greatest Generation talk about what service meant, what was sacrificed, and what was lost. And most of all, why it was so very important.

We do well to remember that the same is true of those who were in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and a lot of places in between where freedom needed to be defended.

Some politicians have gotten into big trouble by phonying up military records. I confess up front – the only uniform I wore was in the Girl Scouts. However, I was fortunate to learn many important lessons from my family as I was growing up, and none stuck with me as much as the one about the virtues of duty and service.

My great-grandfather was in the Union Army during the Civil War. My grandfather was in the Spanish-American War, on our team. My father was a veteran of WWII, on our team. They would be proud that I have the chance to work with, and to serve, you and the rest of Pennsylvania’s community of veterans.

When I worked for Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, one of the places we put concentration on was the Scotland School. For a lot of years, it had been a back corner for state government. As a result, the institution suffered, the programs suffered, and the kids there were not realizing the sorts of opportunity they should. As we made improvements there, I wondered if there were other areas in need of attention.

As people push to spend billions of extra dollars on education and health care and the environment, we hear a constant refrain: “It is about the kids. It is about the future.” There is truth in that.

But I also remember this – without what you did, without the courage and determination and sense of duty that men and women have displayed throughout Pennsylvania’s experience, we might not be here discussing that future, or free to make choices about how to reach our potential.

Government at every level today is under increasing taxpayer pressure to control spending, to avoid taxes, and to look at throwing programs overboard to save money. Fiscal responsibility is a fine and worthy goal. But political convenience is no justification for delaying or for failing to live up to our obligations to those who served.

There are hundreds of groups fighting for a slice of the state funding pie. They deploy professional lobbyists to play the inside game and bring in busloads of regular folks to play the outside game.

Some days, it seems that everyone has a good cause they fervently believe has first call on state dollars. No matter how the priority list is put together, fulfilling our obligation to veterans must be prominent on it.

In the year I have been in the Senate, I have seen an impressive effort to capture results at the state Capitol. Veterans’ groups stood out from the crowd, by virtue of your presence, your persistence, and your persuasive power.

The effort to put into law the veterans’ service outreach program, and to get funding from the state budget, was a textbook campaign of political advocacy.

It is impossible to recognize all who had a hand in advancing your agenda. But the honor roll certainly includes John Getz, George Mullin, Dominic DeFrancesco, Larry Reece, David Sandman, Jack Wettig and Carmen DeSanti. They went well beyond the call of duty to get your mission accomplished.

I realize this room is full of people trained to take one objective, and then move quickly to secure the next.

So what is ahead for us? We do not have to send out the scouts to find a pro-veteran agenda. Between the State Veterans’ Commission, various veterans’ groups, and countless individual veterans among the 1.1 million Pennsylvanians who have served, we do not lack for good purposes to pursue.

Now that we have the Veterans Service Office up and running, we have to make sure that they have the money to do all the outreach necessary. A key step would be to have Governor Rendell recommend the right amount of funding when he presents his next budget in little over a week.

When someone down the road asks the inevitable question – “Hey, whatever happened to that money?” – we need to have at the ready a record of certifiable results.

Just as we want to connect more veterans with more services, so do we want to ensure more value in the services to which they are connected.

We can kick up the educational benefit for the children of disabled veterans.

We can increase the monthly pension for blind and paralyzed veterans.

We can make sure that efforts proceed to open more beds in our state veterans’ homes, and to continually upgrade the quality of care and the range of activities available.

While there are debates over where programs should be parked and who should have the power to do what, in government the chain of command and protocol should not matter so much. It is our commitment to carry through that counts most.

Groucho Marx said that “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” And he said that at a time when confidence in public institutions was a lot higher than it is today.

Despite the disenchantment so pervasive toward government, there are a lot of good people on the inside trying their best to do what is right. I can assure you our committee, including Lee Ann Labecki, the executive director, will continue to do it right.

We are listening to your concerns. Looking at what can and must be done. Acting to move solutions in the right way at the right time. And overseeing state efforts to make sure that what should be done is being done.

James Michener wrote that character is what happens when no one else is looking. In line with that, patriotism is the out-of-the-spotlight steps we take to strengthen America, to stand by our rights and freedoms, and to honor our veterans.

We are proud of you. We are grateful for all you have done. And as you served for us, so must we in turn serve for you.

 Contact: Brian Grove
bgrove@pasen.gov
(570) 675-3931