Murray vows to advocate for veterans

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Patty Murray always has drawn a distinction between war and the men and women who fight it.

When the Washington Democrat was one of just 23 senators to vote against launching the Iraq War in 2002, she said she would support U.S. troops "whenever their commander in chief sends them ... not only during the conflict but afterward."

And as a 22-year-old intern in the summer of 1972, Murray spent her days doing physical rehabilitation on just-returned Vietnam veterans in the psychiatric ward of the Seattle veterans' hospital.

"Then I'd go out in the streets at night and hear the protests," said Murray, the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart. "I knew what they were protesting, but the imbalance of it all just really struck me."

As the new chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Murray is making it clear that she's on the side of those who fight the wars.

"No matter what war or what conflict, when they come home," said the first woman to head the committee, veterans will "have me to be their top advocate in the United States of America."

Murray said she wants to speed up claims processing and shorten the lines at VA centers. She wants to end homelessness among veterans and help them find jobs.

She said she will be calling on businesses to hire more veterans. And she wants to make sure the federal government doesn't overlook female veterans.

Veterans groups regard Murray, a 60-year-old fourth-term senator, as a particularly close friend on Capitol Hill.

Since she joined the Veterans' Affairs panel in 1995, most veterans groups -- including the Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Vietnam Veterans of America -- have given her high marks.

Most are pleased with her ascension, calling her a savvy, detail-oriented and courageous legislator.

"This is a tremendous fit," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the Washington-based Veterans for Common Sense.

Sullivan said even though Murray wasn't a veteran herself, she had "two very special connections" with veterans: her father and her work experience in Seattle. He said she's been a leader on many issues: female veterans, returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and psychological trauma and suicide among veterans.

"It's absolutely fantastic," Sullivan said. "She has a personal connection -- that's important -- and she has subject matter expertise -- that's very important, so there won't be a learning curve."

Murray, who replaced Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii as the committee's chairman, has plenty of fans in her home state, including the Tri-Cities.

Rod Bluechel, vice president of the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition in Kennewick, said too much of the federal aid for veterans has gone to cities instead of small communities. The coalition is trying to open a seven-bed house for the homeless in Kennewick, but Bluechel said the project is on hold because the group needed $12,000 from the federal VA to install a sprinkler system.

Bluechel, a Vietnam veteran, said Murray took heat for voting against the Iraq War at a time when most politicians supported it, but her opposition proved to be "spot-on."

"That's why I kinda like her, because she kinda stands for what she wants," Bluechel said. "And I admire that in people. ... She stands in good shoes."

When Murray voted against the war, she called the action "an ill-defined solo mission" and said too many questions about the conflict were unanswered.

"I understand the consequences of war, and I don't shrink from them," she said. "My father was among the first to land on Okinawa as a GI. Growing up, we always knew that our country may need to project force to defend our freedoms."

"She's great," said Beau Bergeron, of Steilacoom, a former head of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. "She's absolutely great. ... She's really difficult to -- the non-PC term is -- bs, because she understands it. She asks very good questions. I've been in a number of meetings where she has caused bureaucrat-sounding folks to get weak in the knees and admit that they were not doing as good a job as they needed to."

Bergeron, who worked extensively with Murray, recalled when she called the federal director of the Veterans Affairs Department and "just flat took him to task" when funding was in jeopardy for veterans' facilities in Washington state, including the Walla Walla VA Center.

"She's an advocate," he said. "A lot of people say they are and show up at Fourth of July parades or memorial services or wave a flag or whatever, but she is not afraid to get dirty."

-- Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com