Sen. Murray: Country can do much more to help returning veterans

U.S. Senator Patty Murray challenges partipants at the Action Summit at IslandWood last week to do more to assist returning veterans and their families transition into civilian life. Jobs, training and ongoing support is crucial, she said.  - Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review
U.S. Senator Patty Murray challenges partipants at the Action Summit at IslandWood last week to do more to assist returning veterans and their families transition into civilian life. Jobs, training and ongoing support is crucial, she said.
— image credit: Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review

Not here. Not again.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray asked a crowd of leaders on veterans issues for their help in preventing a repeat of the painful past of the country’s treatment of its military members.

Speaking at the 2014 Military Families and Veterans Action Summit, held last week at IslandWood, Murray recalled how veterans were treated when they returned home from the Vietnam War.

It was a stark contrast to the reception, she recalled, that her father — a World War II veteran who was one of the first to storm the beaches in Okinawa — got when he came home to Bothell.

“The way he was treated — not just by neighbors and his community — but by the federal government that provided him with a GI bill,” Murray said, “and that was there for him with worker training programs for my mom many years later when my dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and couldn’t work anymore.”

She recalled volunteering as a college senior in the psychiatric ward of the Seattle Veterans Administration hospital during the Vietnam War.

“I can remember the faces of those veterans, many younger than me, who were being told that they just were shell shocked,” Murray said.

“I can also remember — like many of you — the lack of answers during that period. The feeling that we were not a nation firmly at the back of those who had served. The feeling that as a nation we were quickly turning the page on that war — and those who fought it,” she said.

Last week’s three-day Action Summit brought together leaders and veterans advocates from across the state in a search for solutions and strategies to help military men and women and their families.

Nationwide, more than 27 percent of active duty military personnel have self-reported depression when they’ve come home, and Murray noted the country is facing a critical “pivot point” for post-9/11 veterans who are coming home after a decade of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans of those two wars who are between the ages of 18 and 24, Murray said, have an unemployment rate that’s higher than 20 percent.

“How could that be?” Murray asked.

“It’s a question that I knew I had to get answered first-hand from those veterans themselves who are struggling to find work,” she said.

Murray — chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and the senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — recalled her time spent crisscrossing the state, visiting veteran halls, worker retraining programs and Veterans Administration hospitals.

The roadblocks veterans face when they transition into civilian life, she said, are sometimes simple, and sometimes complicated.

“Most importantly, they were preventable,” she said.

The outlook isn’t entirely bleak, however. Murray said much has been done to help veterans. She recalled the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, bipartisan legislation she helped write that was passed in 2011 that gave incentives to businesses that hire veterans.

Transition assistance by the military for its departing service members has also helped.

But much more needs to be done, she said. Large and small businesses need to step up efforts to hire veterans, assist them with job training and create a company climate that welcomes, supports and encourages those who have served the country.

Military service should not end with a cloud of doubt, she said.

“I have heard repeatedly from veterans that they do not put their military service on their resumes because they fear it stigmatizes them.

As we seek to employ more veterans, we need future bosses and coworkers to understand that issues like PTSD are natural responses to some of the most stressful events a person can go through. We need everyone to understand that these illnesses don’t impact all veterans,” Murray said.

“And importantly, we need them to understand that for those who are affected by these illnesses they can get help, and they can get better, and they get back into their lives,” she said.

The Action Summit was sponsored by Boeing, Walmart, Prudential and Chase, and attendees included leaders such as U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer; Lourdes “Alfie” Alvarado-Ramos, director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs; Denise Yochum, president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom; Sue Ambler, president and CEO of Workforce Snohomish; Alecia R. Grady, chief of Armed Forces Community Service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord; and Joshua Brandon, a military organizer for Sierra Club Outdoors.

“It’s pretty incredible seeing so many passionate, committed leaders who took three days out of their schedule to come here,” said Martin LeBlanc of IslandWood.

The commitment is large, he said, noting that participants devoted themselves to six hours of breakout groups that would come up with recommendations on issues such as spousal employment, transitions for military families, and the mental and physical benefits of outdoor recreation and therapy.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to come up with collaborative strategies that can make a collective impact.

“Having her here, and Rep. Kilmer, lays the challenge out,” he said.


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