In the summer of 1972, a 22-year-old Washington State University student named Patty Murray reported to the Seattle veterans hospital for an internship in physical rehabilitation.
She was assigned to the psychiatric ward on the seventh floor of the orange brick monolith on Beacon Hill.
“Every morning when I arrived, they locked me in with the patients,” Murray recalled recently. “I heard the big doors close behind me.”
Her charges were young men who had returned from Vietnam. As Murray exercised their arms and legs, they described buddies blown apart and children, mistaken for guerrillas, shot and killed. Some stared vacantly; others shouted in anger.
Murray saw some of these same patients slip through cracks in the veterans-care network, left jobless, homeless and unable to find help.
“We didn’t have a name for what they were suffering,” Murray said of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Thirty-six years later, Murray is still working in rehab, trying to fix what’s broken in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, she’s become the leading voice for veteran care in Congress.
Veterans Affairs officials declined to comment about Murray’s work on veterans issues, as did Republican leaders.
But other politicians and veterans say she has made quantifiable changes in the quality of life for veterans, both in Washington state and nationally.
She has helped make the VA face the spiraling costs of long-term care for disabled Iraq veterans and the aging Vietnam generation. She has publicized the growing crises of PTSD and brain damage among many who served in Iraq.
Her staff boasts decades of experience on veterans’ issues and casework. She is the only senator with a full-time psychiatrist on a fellowship in her office, working on PTSD legislation.
And she is likely to be the toughest hurdle for the former military doctor nominated by President Bush last week to run the VA.
Murray said the nominee, retired Army Gen. James Peake, will have to prove “he can be the honest, independent advocate we need to turn the VA around.”
In 1995, Murray became the first woman named to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. She also serves on the Appropriations subcommittee for military construction and veterans affairs.
She’s received high marks from the Disabled American Veterans over the years, working to make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits, pushing for counseling clinics in Bellingham and Yakima, and helping get aid for homeless vets.
“She’s done good for health care, and a lot for local vets,” said Harry Brownell, an Air Force retiree and a regular at the Redmond lodge of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she’s focused on beefing up a VA system that could soon be overwhelmed.
During the Vietnam War, only three wounded U.S. soldiers survived for every one who died. In Iraq, with better equipment and advances in battlefield medicine, 17 wounded troops survive for every one killed, according to a former VA Health Administration director.
That’s created a logjam of veterans coping with lost limbs, brain injuries and psychiatric disorders. The real crisis, Murray said, will be the enormous and unplanned costs to care for these veterans in the coming decades.
“Places like Spokane don’t have the facilities to handle them in the long term,” she said.
For example, many Vietnam veterans who suffered penetrating brain injuries have developed epilepsy. Murray just offered a bill to create six epilepsy centers to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning with similar conditions.
Like all senators, Murray has capitalized on her veterans work, touting her efforts in a tidal wave of press releases and taking credit for dozens of pro-veteran initiatives in recent years.
The issue of veterans’ care became more urgent this past spring when The Washington Post reported on poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where many injured soldiers are treated.
The news shocked Congress and the president, who immediately set up a commission to suggest improvement in the care of wounded troops.
But Murray had been clamoring for attention on such issues for more than a year.
“Even before me, she went to Madigan [Army Hospital, near Tacoma] to ensure they didn’t have the awful problems that they had here at Walter Reed,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Murray’s father, noted Dicks, was a disabled veteran who had served in World War II.
“Her passion is very personal,” he said.
Fighting clinic closures
It was a hot July day in 2003 when Murray learned that the administration and the VA had decided to begin closing some clinics to save money.
Among the clinics targeted for closure were those in American Lake, Vancouver and Walla Walla.
“I think it was 27 minutes from when we heard that to when she was on the phone with Principi,” said her former chief of staff, Rick Desimone.
Anthony Principi was the VA secretary at the time.
“She told him, ‘You’re not going to do this. I’m going to fight you every step of the way,’ ” Desimone said. Murray held hearings in the communities targeted for closures.
American Lake quickly came off the list, followed by Vancouver. Walla Walla’s fate was up in the air until spring 2004.
Murray learned that a top Democratic senator had called a meeting with Principi and she asked to come, Desimone said. When Principi entered the senator’s office, there sat Murray, asking, “What’s up with Walla Walla?”
Although some of its services are being cut, the Walla Walla clinic remains open.
Her clinic crusade shows how Murray has become more aggressive since the war began.
She’s held up Senate confirmation of VA nominees to get her issues heard; introduced funding amendments and, when they were blocked, reintroduced them; and packaged her position on such a high road that to question it is almost unpatriotic.
One of her nemeses has been Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who serves with Murray on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
In June, Craig opposed Murray’s move to increase the number of veterans eligible for care by more than 200,000, on the grounds that adding those patients would overwhelm the system.
“It appears that the majority’s answer to long lines at VA medical centers is simply to get more people standing in line,” he said in a statement.
But Craig’s power has been crippled by the scandal over his guilty plea to disorderly conduct in a bathroom sex sting this summer in a Minneapolis airport.
“Told you so” moment
Murray’s best “I told you so” moment came in 2005.
She claimed that the 2006 budget proposed by President Bush low-balled the amount the VA needed by about $1 billion.
Jim Nicholson, then-secretary of the VA, testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and casually dismissed Murray’s concerns.
Murray didn’t buy it. Over the next three months she pummeled Republican leaders in speeches and forums and introduced four separate emergency-funding proposals. They all lost.
Then in mid-June, the administration abruptly announced it needed another $1.5 billion for the VA budget.
Republican senators commended Murray on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, Nicholson became Murray’s target whenever any problem cropped up at the VA.
He resigned in July and has declined to comment about Murray.
The day of Nicholson’s resignation, Murray accepted an invitation for a social chat at the White House, a standard reception for top Democrats to meet with Bush informally.
“I said to the president that it was astonishing to me what an opportunity he has to do the right things for veterans,” Murray said, “and he’s not taking advantage of it.
“I said that to his face. I went on purpose to do that,” she said. “I haven’t been invited back.”
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org