Before heading back to Washington, D.C., to address the nation’s budget, First Congressional District Rep. Suzan DelBene met with her recently formed Veterans Advisory Board to discuss issues of importance to veterans and what her office can do to make their lives easier.
DelBene, members of her staff and board members discussed military sexual trauma (MST), veteran homelessness, veteran suicide and other difficulties veterans face when they leave the military, at last week’s meeting at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech) in Kirkland.
“We’ve got to see where we’re at today, see what’s working and what’s not working … and also how we can be preemptive,” DelBene said as to why she decided to create this board and meet with them on a quarterly basis.
The members of the board, who are all veterans themselves, shared personal stories of how they and others they know have faced the issues up for discussion.
Board Member Rebecca Murch, who is the program director for Seattle Stand Down, tackled the topic of MST and how difficult the process to claim benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been for her. Murch said she was raped several times while she served, from 1988-1990, and while she had no physical effects as a result, she did fall into depression. She decided to apply for assistance in 2008, but there was no checkbox on her claims form that indicated “sexual assault/trauma” or even “other” as a reason for wanting assistance. She wasn’t ready to say out loud for others to overhear that she had been raped.
She returned in 2015, and the form still wasn’t updated. This time, she met with VA officials, who helped her go through the process of applying for and receiving assistance.
In seeing how difficult the process was for her, Murch, DelBene, her staff and other members of the board expressed concern about how hard it must be for those MST victims who don’t know the right officials to contact to get through the process.
“I’ve heard this story before, and it kills me every time I hear it,” Benjamin Studley, DelBene’s veterans field representative, said.
“I have two daughters that want to join the military like their dad, and part of me wants to say, ‘No,’” Ahmad Bennett, a board member and coordinator of the Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success at LWTech, added.
When the topic of veteran suicide came up, Bennett shared that he tried to commit suicide due to a rough transition to the civilian world after serving in the Navy.
“When you’re overwhelmed with all this information, you can feel paralyzed,” he said. “The biggest thing I think we all need is community.”
Bennett and others pointed to the value of veterans centers at colleges and universities as an invaluable support system, but concern was raised about how to assist veterans who don’t attend college after they leave the military.
Board Member Lindsey Zike, who is the assistant director of veteran student life at the University of Washington, suggested better transition counseling for veterans before they leave, such as one-on-one appointments with a transition counselor versus group sessions.
“A one-size-fits-all model is definitely not working,” Zike said.
DelBene seemed supportive of Zike’s suggestion, as not all veterans have a set plan when they leave the military.
Rough transitions out of the military can lead to dire consequences such as homelessness, another topic of discussion at the recent board meeting. Board Member Dane Olsen, who is a Veterans Affairs Department employee who works to find homeless veterans permanent housing, said it is critical to follow a housing-first model in these situations, following that up with meeting with a social worker to get access to services and then, if possible, securing a job for the person.
Combining the idea of having a support system to combat mental health issues with a solution to homelessness, several board members discussed the idea of setting up more group homes. In these housing situations, veterans would have reliable housing and have a social outlet with people who are going through the same things they are.
“Younger generations want non-traditional housing,” Murch said.