PASCO -- What Sen. Patty Murray heard from veterans and Hispanic students during two Tri-City listening sessions Tuesday is that support networks are critical to the success of both groups.
But while Hispanic students said they have good local resources, veterans told Murray that they need more help -- especially when it comes to re-adjusting to civilian life after military service.
Murray met with both groups at Columbia Basin College in Pasco on Tuesday while Congress is on a weeklong break. She also met briefly with representatives from the Port of Kennewick.
A group of Hispanic CBC students told Murray they are thankful for the College Assistance Migrant Program and other support services at the college that help them navigate college applications, financial aid and degree plans so they know which classes to take to earn their diplomas.
Many of the CAMP students are the first in their families to go to college and need help with the adjustment so the pressure of college life doesn't overwhelm them.
"I never pictured myself in college," student Christian Gonzalez told Murray. "I was really scared. I didn't know what to expect."
But the CAMP students and staff have become like a second family and offered him much-needed support, Gonzalez said.
The students' experiences stood in contrast to the experiences of the veterans who spoke with Murray, many of whom got little help as they left the military and returned to civilian life.
Several veterans who attended the roundtable discussion told Murray that the transition class offered to them ended up being more about trying to recruit them for the reserves than giving them the tools they need to find jobs and support at home.
Jason Alves, Vet CORPS coordinator at Washington State University Tri-Cities, said many of the veterans he meets at the regional campus are ill-prepared for life after military service, which can make them vulnerable to becoming homeless.
Alves himself spent time living in a pickup or sleeping on his grandparents' couch while waiting for his GI Bill benefits to kick in.
He didn't realize at the time that he met the technical definition for homelessness, but sees now how close to the edge he was -- one argument with his grandparents or parking his truck in the wrong space could have left him on the streets.
"I know I have a lot of veterans in the same situation," Alves said. "There's not much transitional housing."
One thing Murray has tried to do to for homeless veterans is to support the construction of a nursing home in Walla Walla that would be run by the Veterans Administration and provide longterm care to disabled veterans who are homeless or at risk for becoming homeless because of their medical problems.
Murray said she met with leaders in the Washington Legislature on Monday to convince them to include money in the state's construction budget for the nursing home.
The state needs to contribute about $14 million in matching money in order to get a federal grant for the rest of the construction money.
Murray said the federal grant will cover about 65 percent of the cost.
The capital budget released by the state House Democrats on Tuesday includes the $14 million, but must be approved by the full Legislature.
Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, lead capital budget writer in the state Senate, recently told the Herald that funding for the nursing home also would be included on the Senate's project list.
The veterans who spoke to Murray on Tuesday told her that Tri-City veterans also need better access to medical and mental health services.
They said there's a yearlong waiting list for medical care at the VA clinic in Richland. Some veterans instead choose to get their medical services in Walla Walla.
Murray shook her head when she heard other veterans were paying for their medical care out of their own pockets if they couldn't make it to Walla Walla, and when she heard some veterans are waiting four weeks to get a mental health appointment.
"They're only supposed to have to wait two weeks," she said. "That's very disturbing. I have pushed the VA hard to make sure they only wait two weeks."
Murray also was interested in how female veterans are faring after returning home.
Navy veteran Tara Atchley told Murray that while she is proud to talk about her service, she knows many other women who are reluctant to identify themselves as veterans.
"A lot of the female veterans don't feel they are good enough to call themselves veterans," Atchley said.
She said she is trying to start a club at WSU Tri-Cities where female veterans can find support.
"I'd love to see you do that," Murray said. "I not only want women to be proud to be veterans but to get the services they deserve."
Local veterans said they have found bright spots at CBC and WSU Tri-Cities with the establishment of offices at both campuses where they can connect with other people who have served in the military and understand their experiences.
"Having the office makes a difference," said Chris Denman, an Army veteran and CBC student. "It builds up the camaraderie you have when you're in but lose as you're getting out."
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org