Sen. Patty Murray on Monday visited Tacoma to announce a new bill that would force the Department of Veterans Affairs to help former troops regardless of whether they left the military with an honorable discharge.
Murray met with groups in Tacoma that work with homeless veterans. She is pushing to protect vulnerable veterans from losing VA-funded assistance they’ve been receiving through local nonprofit organizations around the country.
They’re at risk because a VA legal review last year concluded that veterans who spent fewer than 24 months in uniform or who received a less than honorable discharge may not be entitled to any government benefits connected to their military service. In most cases, those veterans are not eligible for VA benefits.
That’s unacceptable to Murray and other advocates who worry about closing doors to former troops who were disciplined after experiencing traumatic events, such as combat or sexual assaults.
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“If you served our country, then we will serve you. No questions asked about length of service or how you left,” said Murray, a Democrat and former chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
She had a supportive audience at Tacoma’s Metropolitan Development Council, where leaders from several nonprofits and housing agencies gathered to stress to her the significance of supporting troubled veterans.
“We do not want to continue to shame our veterans when they come to us for assistance. We want to be able to say yes,” said Patti Spaulding-Klewin, who manages veteran housing programs for Catholic Community Services in Tacoma.
Since 2013, her organization and MDC have received a combined total of more than $5 million in federal grants to connect homeless veterans with stable housing. They’ve helped more than 500 veterans in that time, said Troy Christensen, MDC’s operations director.
Last year, both groups met veterans who risked losing local housing services when the VA temporarily cut off benefits to former troops with less than honorable discharges or short military careers.
“That didn’t allow us to do our job and assist them,” Christensen said.
USA Today first reported on the VA’s policy change, and Murray helped arrange a temporary fix to keep services flowing. The bill she plans to submit next week when she returns to Congress would permanently prevent the VA from cutting off government-funded housing benefits provided through groups like MDC and Catholic Community Services.
Murray toured the MDC’s Randall Townsend Apartments on Fawcett Street, which opened last fall to serve chronically homeless people. About a third of the 85 people who’ve received services there are veterans, Christensen said.
Murray was joined by Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs Director Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland.