Combat veterans and a congressional freshman sat down across a long table last week, for a little strategizing.
First District Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick met with about 15 military veterans to pledge her support, stress her new committee assignment, and promote a couple of new laws.
She also expressed support without actually making commitments concerning an endangered and intermittently controversial private effort to help homeless veterans in Rim Country.
“I’m here to listen to the problems and the way you’re being treated,” said the newly elected Flagstaff congresswoman and former state lawmaker, whose sprawling district includes Rim Country.
Sitting across the table from the congresswoman who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee were Misti Isley DeCaire, a retired colonel who has turned her home into an official homeless shelter for 22 veterans and Art Russo, one of the residents.
“I thank you for the shelter you’ve provided,” added Kirkpatrick.
DeCaire founded Veterans Helping Veterans to advocate for veterans for years in the Rim Country, taking in jobless, homeless veterans struggling with addiction and other issues. DeCaire noted that she often drives them to the VA medical facilities in Prescott for appointments.
However, after DeCaire fell behind on her mortgage payments, the bank foreclosed and sold the house at auction — although, at the moment, some 22 homeless veterans live there. Well Fargo Bank got an eviction notice, before learning the house doubled as a homeless shelter. The bank has now suspended the eviction proceedings, in hopes of working out some new arrangement.
Kirkpatrick’s staff got involved in the dispute, writing a letter on DeCaire’s behalf. Last week, Kirkpatrick promised to remain “involved” and to investigate options to keep the shelter open.
But she spent most of the meeting last week talking about various measures to help veterans nationally — as well as trying to stamp out a rumor that someone had introduced a bill that would bar veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder from owning guns.
Kirkpatrick has worked to stake out veterans issues as one of her core concerns and one of her first bills was a measure to build a cost of living adjustment into payments for disabled veterans and their families.
An estimated 65,000 Arizonans and 3 million Americans were injured or disabled in the course of military service — including 700 Arizonans who have been wounded in Iraq.
The group spent much of the roughly half-hour visit talking about the need for a comprehensive, national system that will maintain veterans’ records, so they can get medical care, counseling and other benefits without getting lost in paperwork swamps — or repeatedly denied services for lack of records. The Department of Veterans Affairs has an estimated 600,000 claims, which it hasn’t processed for lack of staffing.
Moreover, recently Kirkpatrick’s committee learned that military records had been mistakenly shredded.
Kirkpatrick asked for suggestions on how to make sure veterans returning from Iraq are comprehensively screened for PTSD and other mental health issues.
“Sometimes it doesn’t show up for years,” said DeCaire, recalling the case of one veteran who lived through fierce combat and wound up flying home on a plane loaded with dead soldiers in body bags. He developed PTSD “and they gave him a lousy 50 percent disability,” said DeCaire.
The group agreed that all veterans should be periodically screened for mental health issues, rather than relying on soldiers to ask for screening — which in the military can draw the scorn of fellow soldiers and perhaps have an impact on future assignments.
Kirkpatrick said, “We’re going to have a surge of 65,000 veterans returning from Iraq — so let’s not repeat our mistakes. What can we do now to help our veterans