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Caring for veterans 'part of the cost of war,' Murray says

c Clatchy WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - Sen. Patty Murray is the face of Senate efforts to improve the care veterans returning from the Iraq War receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Washington Democrat was tapped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to organize the effort earlier this year - about the time the country was learning that soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were living in a building with rodents and mold growing on the walls.

But during hearings before the Veterans Affairs Committee on which she sits, Murray has hammered hard on other disturbing issues - long waits for appointments, undiagnosed disorders and a lack of money.

In an interview, Murray said services for veterans and wounded soldiers are improving, but she is a long way from satisfied.

Q. In a Memorial Day statement last year, you called upon President Bush to "fulfill the promise of care for veterans." Is your message this Memorial Day any different?

A. My message to the president is to remember that caring for our veterans is part of the cost of war. All of us as a country have to sacrifice as a cost of going to war. Paying for our veterans is part of our obligation.

Q. You don't think he is doing that?

A. We've had to drag this administration to every funding issue we have seen in front of us, whether it is Walter Reed, making sure our veterans get the benefits they need, whether it is recognizing that traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress syndrome, or whether it is the overall budget. We have had to fight them every single step of the way.

Q. From a veteran's point of view, which is most discouraging?

A. What troubles me is the men and women who have come home from Iraq and said to me, "I fought for my country and I can't believe I have to fight my own country to get the health care and benefits I was promised."

Q. That's not improving?

A. It is improving. ... After numerous votes in the Senate, I got the administration to admit that it was underfunding the Veterans Administration (sic) by billions of dollars.

This year in this budget we added $3.5 billion above what the president requested. In the supplemental war spending bill that is about to be sent to the president, we added over $4 billion for veterans health.

But it also is the policies and the procedures. We can allocate the money to the VA and tell them that we can allocate the money for traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress syndrome. But if the VA says we're not going to spend this money on that, then we don't get the help to our veterans.

Q. Do you think the president just doesn't care?

A. I think the president has a different view than I do.

I felt really strongly that when you ask someone to fight for their country, then their country has to be there to take care of them for as long as they need it. When I talk to a veteran from Vietnam who has to wait nine months to see a professional at a VA center, then we have not kept our promise.

When I talk to an Iraqi veteran who has come home and can't get a job because he doesn't have employable skills, our country is not doing its job. When I talk to a young Iraqi veteran who self-medicated and almost killed himself because no one diagnosed him with traumatic brain injury, then this country hasn't done its job.

Q. In your national radio response to the president's radio address in March, you said veterans services were better after World War II than they are now. Is that true?

A. No doubt. Our (World War II) veterans came home to a country that was really grateful for their service. The country knew its responsibility was to care for those veterans, and it went out of its way to do so. It was quite different for the Vietnam War veterans when they came home. And I think it is quite different today for the Iraq war veterans.

Today the American public doesn't want the same thing to happen to these veterans as happened after the Vietnam War. They want to be there to support them. But what we have is an administration that hides the ball and doesn't tell us what we can do. They haven't talked about the cost of war. We don't see the caskets coming home. We didn't see what was happening at Walter Reed until a reporter was able to tell the story of that.

Q. You also said in that radio address that "Democrats will keep pushing in Congress until there is a change in the course of the Iraq war." This week Democrats dropped the timetable for an Iraq withdrawal from the spending bill for the war. How is that pushing?

A. Look, if Democrats were not in the majority today, we would be sending a bill to the president with no accountability in it, no funding for veterans, no funding for the health care for our service men and women who are coming home.

We are keeping our foot on the president on this. We didn't have the votes to override a veto. The president is going to keep our troops in Iraq. It is our responsibility to make sure they've got what they need until this president has enough members of this Congress who are willing to change course.

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