When U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema heard she was receiving the 2018 Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award from MOAA, the first people she told were her brothers.
“They're the ones who put their lives on the line for the country,” she says.
The award is named for the retired Marine Corps officer who founded MOAA in 1929.
Veterans issues have become a major focus for Sinema (D-Ariz.) since the story first broke of scheduling delays at Phoenix's Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center in her district.
“In 2014, as you know, we learned that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA,” she recalls.
The scandal that unfolded still is fresh in her mind.
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In the interval that immediately followed, she was in the community, working with veterans, health care providers, veterans' service organizations, and the VA to get clinics set up for people who needed care, while at the same time pushing for the VA's Office of Inspector General to investigate.
She backed a whistleblower, addiction therapist and Marine Corps veteran Brandon Coleman, in his retaliation complaint after he reported the Phoenix VA's inattention to potential suicide cases.
“I'm really proud to say that Brandon is back at work,” she says. He's working as a whistleblower program specialist for the VA's new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
Meanwhile, reforms have taken shape at the national level with Congress' 2017 passage of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, and Sinema thinks things have gotten better at the Phoenix VA - but with plenty left to do both in Phoenix and throughout the system.
Looking ahead, “I think reforming the VA will continue to be a big challenge,” she says. “I think the VA should focus on what it does best,” partnering with community-based care for the rest.
Implementing community-based care in the form of VA's Veterans Choice Program is an ever-present task in her office.
“In Arizona, only 48 percent of those eligible receive care from the VA,” she says. “The VA has got to do better. It's not performing at the level it needs to. The VA has got to transform to be a center of excellence.”
VA reform hasn't been all in one act.
“Our mental health crisis with veterans does not receive nearly the attention it deserves,” Sinema says, referring to an estimated 20 veterans dying from suicide every day. “This is higher than the number of servicemembers we lose in combat.”
She was thinking of Daniel Somers, an Army veteran with diagnoses of traumatic brain injury and PTSD after two Iraq deployments. Somers died of suicide after unsuccessfully seeking one-on-one treatment at the Phoenix VA.
“He needed individual counseling,” Sinema says. “He couldn't disclose the trauma in a group setting.”
She introduced the Sgt. Daniel Somers Classified Veterans Access to Care Act, guaranteeing private counseling to veterans whose military work was classified. It was signed into law in 2016.
The sister of a Marine-turned-K9 law enforcement officer and a gunner's mate making a career out of the Navy, Sinema is in her third term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Her brothers' service has taught her “the military is a pathway, not just a career in the short-term.”
Sinema has announced her intent to run for the U.S. Senate. Arizona's primary is Aug. 28. Sinema's fellow recipient of the Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award, Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), is on the Republican ballot for the same seat.