WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats selected Washington's Patty Murray to head the Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday, marking the first time a woman will hold the influential post.
Murray will replace Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii as the new committee chairwoman. Akaka, an 86-year-old veteran of World War II, has headed the committee for four years and now will lead the Committee on Indian Affairs.
"Following in his footsteps is an amazing task, but I am ready to take this on, and I'm very excited," Murray said in an interview. She called it "an amazing journey for me."
First elected in 1992, Murray was re-elected to a fourth term in November. She joined the Veterans' Affairs Committee in 1995, becoming the first woman named to the panel.
"I look at this as a passion for veterans, men and women alike," she said of her new assignment.
Murray, 60, knows about veterans from personal experience.
She's the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran, who earned the Purple Heart as one of the first GIs to land on Okinawa and then returned home to Bothell to run a five-and-ten-cent shop.
And in the summer of 1972, as a 22-year-old student at Washington State University, she interned at the Seattle veterans hospital, where she was assigned to do physical rehabilitation in the psychiatric ward.
Among her accomplishments in Congress: Murray helped keep open VA facilities Washington after they had been targeted for closure. She helped win approval for new VA community-based health care clinics in the state. She introduced legislation to help more veterans with multiple sclerosis get care.
Washington had 670,000 veterans as of the 2000 Census, along with thousands of active duty personnel at Joint Base Lewis McChord and other installations.
Murray called her appointment, which was announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, "a great honor, but an even greater responsibility."
"I have a tremendous duty to the 22 million veterans across the country who have stepped up to serve our nation and who deserve the highest quality care, benefits, and treatment in return," she said.
On Capitol Hill, Murray is regarded as a close ally of veterans, with her work winning honors from the Vietnam Veterans of America, American Ex-POWs, the VFW, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, among others.
She said far too many veterans "are sleeping on the streets after serving their country" and that too many are waiting far too long to receive benefits they've earned, including access to mental health care, worker training, and other resources to help them transition from soldiers to civilians.
Murray said she intends to make sure that the VA "is working for our veterans, not against them."
"Our service members should never have to come home from fighting a war only to fight to get the benefits and care that they deserve," she said.
The appointment increases Murray's already high profile on Capitol Hill. She's the Senate majority's conference secretary, making her the fourth highest-ranking Democrat, and she heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is working to recruit and fund candidates for the 2012 election.
Roll Call, a Washington-based publication, this week called Murray one of five senators to watch closely in the new Congress, saying she will "influence the debate and drive caucus decisions" over the next two years.