YAKIMA, Wash. -- Local veterans told U.S. Sen. Patty Murray on Thursday that they’ve been mistreated, ignored and in some cases totally forgotten by the federal government in seeking medical care and applying for benefits.
"There’s no worse tragedy than being forgotten," Graciela Marroquin, an Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, said at a panel discussion on veterans’ issues held Thursday at Yakima’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 379.
Among the biggest concerns voiced: lack of access to specialized medical care in the region. Many are forced to drive more than two hours to Veterans Administration hospitals in Walla Walla or Seattle to see specialists.
Panelists also warned that problems are likely to increase as more veterans return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among those testifying to the difficulties in obtaining proper care was Maggie Pezzullo, a 28-year-old Iraq War veteran. Pezzullo, who said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe back pain from combat injuries suffered in 2003 and 2004, said VA representatives had tried to cut her number of chiropractor visits in half by offering her narcotics instead of physical therapy.
Pezzullo, a mother of 7-year-old twin girls who is unable to work, said it was one in a list of incidents showing the government was cutting corners in treating veterans and lacked regard for her family’s needs.
"There’s a new wave" of veterans, Pezzullo said, "and we need to be taken care of just as much."
Murray, who is chairwoman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, plans to use the information gathered at the session to bring local veterans’ concerns to Washington, D.C. The senator, whose father served in the military in World War II, has aggressively sought ways in which the federal government can improve its veterans’ services.
John Rimel, coordinator of the Yakima National Guard’s Family Assistance Center, said an influx of returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan creates potential for more to slip through the stacks of bureaucratic paperwork and not seek or receive the benefits they’re entitled to.
"We’re starting to see more broken bodies and minds walking into our office and saying, ‘We need help,’" Rimel said.
Marroquin said if a veterans hospital can’t be established in Central Washington, then there needs to be outsourcing options to see medical specialists in the area, as some veterans are financially or physically unable to make dozens of trips across the state throughout the year. She said the medical and counseling clinics in Yakima lack the staff and resources to meet veterans’ needs.
"We deserve to be taken care of in a dignified and respectful way," Marroquin said.
Veterans on the panel also had concerns that the budget debate in Washington, D.C., would lead to cuts in benefits and services. Murray took a hard stand on the issue, saying veterans wouldn’t have to worry about that with her in the Senate.
"You can count on me," Murray said. "We won’t balance (the budget) on the backs of veterans."
Prior to the listening session with veterans, Murray held a similar event at Adams Elementary School, taking comments from local public education administrators on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — known to most as No Child Left Behind.
The bill has already passed a Senate committee and will likely receive a number of amendments on the Senate floor before being passed, Murray said. She said she wants to make sure the legislation accounts for the differences and diversity among school systems as opposed to a "one size fits all" approach.
"We need to change the way we look at schools," Murray said.
- Yakima Herald