Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., are new chairs of the Veterans' Affairs Committees in their respective chambers. (Photos by Getty Images (left), Gannett)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the new Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairwoman, uses the word "needs" rather than "wants" to describe the things that must be done to help the nation's veterans.
The 60-year-old daughter of a disabled World War II veteran, Murray has been an active committee member since 1995 and a fierce critic of the bureaucracy that faces veterans and their families when they try to get benefits, use veterans hospitals or get other aid from the Veterans Affairs Department.
Murray, who succeeds World War II veteran Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is the first woman in Senate history to lead the committee. She has worked on issues involving female veterans and believes there is much more to do to help women, but her goals go far beyond that.
"I have never turned down a job because it is too hard," said Murray, a member of the Senate leadership who was elected to a fourth term in November. "I know we have World War II veterans who have needs today, Vietnam veterans who are aging, and we have a new population of veterans coming home who need disability checks, need employment and need VA services that work better. I intend to really have the committee be a place where veterans have a voice and an advocate."
VA has made strides toward becoming more veteran-friendly, she said, but the department still doesn't always work for veterans.
"I think the people at VA have the right intentions," she said, but budgets, bureaucracy and employee attitudes all contribute to a feeling among some veterans that they are poorly served.
"VA is better now than it was a few years ago, but I still hear from far too many men and women who come home after fighting for their country who say they are now fighting for their benefits," Murray said.
One of her priorities is focusing more attention on the long-term needs of severely disabled veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "They are worried about what happens to them when this war ends. That weighs heavily on their minds," she said. "This is very disconcerting."
One of the biggest problems facing VA is a growing claims backlog that has proven resistant to multiple fixes, from hiring more staff to harnessing technology to streamlining applications.
"This is a huge frustration," Murray said. "With technology what it is, people should not be waiting 180 days or longer for a disability check. It is particularly important today when they come home to a tough economy, and this disability check may be the difference between them keeping their home and their family together."
Murray said she understands claims are complex, but she has looked into the faces of vets and families who are desperate after six months of waiting for a check.
Her staff, like the staffs of other lawmakers, regularly help veterans and their families through the claims process.
"They should not have to call their senator to get a disability check," she said. "But if they do, we are here for them."
Akaka, an 86-year-old native Hawaiian who was an eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is now chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee also has a new chairman. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., held the first meeting of the House panel on Wednesday to set out ambitious oversight objectives. Miller has not responded to requests from Military Times for an interview.
While Murray is the first woman to head the Senate committee, she is not the first woman to lead a congressional panel on veterans. The House veterans' committee was twice headed by a woman, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Maine, in 1947-48 and again in 1953-54.