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Good morning, I call this hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to order. I want to welcome all of you, and thank you for coming. By being here today, you are sending a strong message that we care about everyone who serves our nation. Every day, in ways large and small, Washington state military personnel are making us proud. They are facing challenges overseas, and their families are making sacrifices here at home. They are doing what our country asked.

Now, as they come home, we must do what our country promised: heal their wounds, meet their needs, and ease their return to family, to work, and to our community. I've called this hearing to explore one question: Are today's veterans getting the help they need as they come home from combat? To answer that question, we will hear testimony today from military leaders, service providers, and veterans themselves. In the audience today, we have many people who have answered our country's call to service in times of war and peace. We have an obligation to you, and I am honored to serve on the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee so I can be a voice for you and the 670,000 veterans throughout our state. I grew up understanding the sacrifices that veterans have made.

During World War II, my dad was one of the first G.I.’s to land on Okinawa. He was injured, sent to a hospital in Hawaii, and then immediately sent back to Okinawa. Like many in our audience today, he was awarded the Purple Heart. When I was in college at WSU, I asked to do my internship at the VA hospital in Seattle. I moved from Pullman to Seattle for the semester, rented a room, and spent my days in the psychiatric ward, working with veterans coming back from Vietnam. Today, I am the first woman to serve on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and I don't hesitate to speak out when our veterans need help.

I'm holding this hearing in Washington state, because sometimes I can't get straight answers in Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., they'll tell you that everything is fine. For months, the Administration and the VA were telling me they had all the money they needed. They said, "Don't worry, Patty." But I did worry, because every time I came home and talked with veterans here, I heard a much different story. I heard about the VA's hiring freeze, I heard about veterans waiting months just to get an appointment, and I heard about veterans who had to drive for hours to see a doctor because the clinics they were promised still weren't built.

So in March, I proposed increasing veterans spending by three percent. It's a small amount, but it would have lifted the hiring freeze, reduced delays, and allowed the VA to open new clinics in our state. It's hard to believe, but my proposal was defeated, not just once, but three times. In Washington, D.C., people told me, "Everything's fine." Well six weeks ago, we learned the truth, and things were not fine.

The VA admitted that it was at least one billion dollars short of what it needed to care for veterans this year. That means many veterans faced delays or did not get the care they deserved and that is wrong. So, I went back out to the Senate floor and offered my amendment again. This time, people finally saw the light, and last week the full Senate approved an additional $1.5 billion for veterans healthcare. I'm pleased that we got the money in the end, but it shouldn't have taken that long. Every day that was wasted over politics was a day our veterans were not treated right. That whole episode showed me that if I ask people in Washington, D.C., they will tell me that everything's fine. If I ask you here in Washington state, I'll learn the truth and that's the only way we can make sure we're taking care of the people who are taking care of us.

Today I want to hear about the challenges veterans and their families are facing as they return home. For two years, I've been meeting with military personnel at every stage. In January 2004, I met with members of the 81st Brigade before they shipped out. This March, I traveled to Iraq and Kuwait to meet with members of our armed services from Washington state. I saw their courage in the face of difficult and dangerous missions. And since then, I've met with Guard members who have returned home to Everett, Spokane and Port Orchard. On Monday, I met with family members at Camp Murray. Yesterday, I sat down with returning veterans in the Tri-Cities, and on Thursday, I'll hear from more veterans in Longview. I'm holding these meetings so I can build a record of what we need to do. So when people in Washington, D.C. say "everything's fine," I can show them what's really going on and push them to do the right thing. This hearing will be an important part of the record I am assembling.

For this hearing to be legitimate, we must follow the same procedures that are used at hearings in Washington, D.C. That means testimony is limited to the invited witnesses; there are strict time limits, which these timing lights will indicate; and we have a court reporter here to create a formal record of our proceedings.

Unfortunately, that means we are not allowed to take questions or comments from the audience. But I want to make sure you have an opportunity to share your views. We have a comment form that you can fill out. We also have a sign up sheet, so you can get updates from me as I continue this work back in the United States Senate. In addition, I’ve created a section on my website, where veterans from throughout our state can share their stories with me. The address is and you’ll see a section called “Share Your Story.”

Let me explain how the hearing will work. Today, we will hear from three panels of witnesses. The first panel will include officials from the Washington State Guard, the federal VA, and the state Department of Veterans Affairs. They will give us a bird's-eye view of what's happening throughout the state and will set the stage for our discussion. Then, on the second panel, we will hear directly from veterans. I especially want to thank them and their families for having the courage to come here today and talk in public about some very personal challenges. But, I know there are more challenges we won't have time to raise today. So if you have a concern that we don't cover, I want you to write it down and give it to my staff. Our third panel includes people who work directly with veterans as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have seen what a wide range of veterans are facing and can give us a first-hand view from ground level.

When I call on our first panel, each witness will have up to 3 minutes to present their testimony, and then I will ask them questions. Of course, your full written statements will be entered into the Committee record. When we’re done with each witness on the first panel, I’ll call the second and third panels.

Before we turn to our first panel, I want you to know that hearings like this can truly make a difference. Two summers ago, the VA tried to close down three VA hospitals in our state. I worked with veterans throughout our state to make sure the VA understood that we need these hospitals to stay open. Within a day, we were able to persuade the VA secretary to keep one hospital open. Months later, we persuaded the CARES Commission to keep a save a second hospital. That left one hospital in jeopardy, the Wainwright Medical Center in Walla Walla.

I knew the Senate needed to hear from the people in the local community, who would have a harder time getting healthcare if their hospital was closed. So in April last year, I held a Veterans Hearing just like this one in Walla Walla. We built a record of the need at that hearing and I used that record in Washington, D.C. to help protect the hospital. And with the support of veterans in Walla Walla and throughout our state, we won.

So I know that a hearing like this one can make a real difference by giving the people in Washington, D.C. a dose of reality about what our local veterans are facing. The witnesses here today will help us build an accurate record, and I thank them, and all of you.

I know we have many veterans in the audience today. If you need help from the VA, we have representatives here on site today who can help you file a claim. You can meet with officials from the VA Regional office, TRICARE, and the VA hospital in a room nearby. If you need help with an existing claim, members of my staff are here. They may be able to help you resolve a claim with the VA. Because of federal privacy rules, we do need a signed letter giving us permission to investigate your case before we can do anything, so I invite you to talk with my staff if you need assistance. Let’s begin with our first panel.