Politics & Government

Washington Sen. Murray holds roundtable with veterans

Returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, but being discouraged from receiving treatment. Waiting for more than two months for a doctor’s appointment with Veterans Administration. Being afraid to write the word “veteran” on a job application.

Those were among the concerns that six local veterans brought to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in a listening session Monday at Harbor Wholesale Foods in Lacey. Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, periodically holds the roundtables to get feedback.

Each veteran described the often difficult transition from war to civilian life.

“My unit suffered a lot of casualties,” said Sarah Lilegard, an intelligence analyst for four years who deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 with a Stryker brigade, the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

She was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after returning from combat, “and at the time I just wanted to feel kind of normal,” she said. “But when it’s you, you really don’t want to admit to it.”

She said it’s difficult to seek treatment when the people who must be approached for treatment are the people she served with. “My unit definitely had a lot to do with my not seeking further treatment.”

She said it wasn’t until she left the Army that she was able to address her issues. She took up kayaking and now is an anthropology major at Saint Martin’s University.

Murray asked if Lilegard sought help with the Veterans Administration. “With the VA? No,” she said. She said she heard too many negative stories about it.

Veteran Don Carlson said later that the wait to get into the VA is two to three months.

Lilegard also said returning veterans need more help to cover their educations. Her money from the GI Bill isn’t enough to match the skyrocketing cost of education.

At one point, Murray asked the veterans whether they listed their service on their résumés. Lilegard said she didn’t. “Depending on where you go, there’s a real climate of labeling,” she said.

“The reason I asked the question about whether or not they put veteran on their employment when they apply for a job is because I’m hearing so many veterans quietly tell me that they never do,” Murray said in an interview. “We need to call this out; people need to know this is happening, and it needs to be fixed. That’s just wrong.”

Rodney Saarela talked about his 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including serving in the Iraq war. He said superiors discouraged soldiers from returning home for treatment for PTSD, insisting they instead be treated in the war zone. “So PTSD was a bad thing,” he said. “They were going to keep you there. They didn’t want to send you back to the states. They wanted to fix you right there.”

Saarela’s battles continued when he returned from war, only this time with the VA. It’s not what he wanted. “I understand the PTSD thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to get labeled.”

He said he now takes “twenty-something pills a day.”

But finding work was a struggle. He drove tanks for the Army but couldn’t find work in the civilian world. One barrier is getting a commercial driver’s license, which fellow veteran Caleb Thetford said costs $6,000.

In the interview, Murray said that what she heard Monday echoes what she’s heard from other veterans, including that they don’t want to identify that they have PTSD. She said she plans to hold a field hearing in April that will bring the issues in front of top officials at the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense.

“They need to hear what I’m hearing,” she said. “They can’t keep pointing fingers at each other.”

Murray cited a bill she authored that was passed in November, the VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act, which helps them translate the skills they learned in the military into civilian jobs.

“There are more and more younger vets,” she said. “It used to be – I did this 10 years ago – you would see a table of very old vets. Now you see all younger vets with very real issues.”

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