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News for the Santa Monica College Community
  April 01, 2013

Student Vet Storms the Hill

The statistics are shocking: 22 veterans commit suicide every day. The average wait for a Veterans Administration claim is 273 days. In major cities such as Los Angeles, it is more than 600 days.

Armed with these statistics and an urgent need to address crucial issues facing veterans, SMC student Robert Contreras joined 27 other veterans from around the country the week of March 18 to “Storm the Hill” and meet with Congressional representatives.

Contreras, an exemplary student who served two tours in Iraq and is active with SMC’s Veterans Resource Center, applied for and won one of the coveted spots in the “Storm the Hill” annual event. He was also recently featured in an NBC World News report, “Ten years after Iraq invasion, US troops ask: ‘Was it worth it?’”

The following is his account of his experience at “Storm the Hill.”

By Robert Contreras

“Storm The Hill” is an annual leadership development and advocacy event held by the non-partisan, non-profit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). There are 2.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 200,000 are members of IAVA. The week of March 18 I, along with 27 other veterans of the recent wars, were brought from 22 states to present the issues affecting our community before members of Congress, White House staff and senior officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This year we were addressing several issues that have a significant impact on veterans’ education, employment, mental health care access and the extremely long wait times for the VA to process a healthcare claim.

The average wait time for a VA healthcare claim is 273 days; in major cities like Los Angeles and New York it is over 600 days. There are 22 veterans who commit suicide each day, and in the past year, among active duty military, there were more suicides than combat-related deaths. Veterans are being required to pay out-of-state fees for colleges and universities when the military lifestyle prevented them from establishing residency. Veteran unemployment, though improving, is still higher than the national average for people of similar age groups. These are issues that our elected officials can and should take action to resolve.

In my time on Capitol Hill I was able to have meetings in 21 congressional offices. Some of these meetings were with the elected officials, whereas others were with their designated staff members. Overall, the members of Congress were extremely receptive to the message that we were trying to deliver. The meeting with Senator Barbara Boxer of California was excellent, and Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana took time in between votes to meet with my colleagues and myself. The highlight of my trip was when Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona took time out of her schedule to give us a tour of the Capitol Dome, an extremely rare opportunity that is granted only by having a member of Congress along. The days were packed full of meetings leaving my team running between the Senate and House office buildings, waiting in security lines that were long because of federal government sequestration cuts.

The full impact of the “Storm The Hill” team’s work has yet to be seen. We were able to bring national attention to our concerns through social media and broadcast news. So far 23 members of Congress have signed the IAVA petition – along with 40,000 people from across the country – calling for a presidential commission to investigate the VA backlog of claims. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has drafted a letter to Secretary Hagel of the Department of Defense asking that agencies help in streamlining the claims process.  

The only way to ensure the trip to Washington was a success will be to maintain the pressure on our elected officials until appropriate action has been taken to address these concerns. Till then I remain hopeful that in a highly divided Congress that these few bipartisan items can gain support.

 

 





""Robert Contreras talking to students

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