Last week, I had the experience of a lifetime in joining IAVA’s staff and members on their Spring Storm the Hill. Storm the Hill is IAVA’s trademark advocacy program that flies out veteran members of all backgrounds to speak with Members of Congress on important issues affecting post-9/11 veterans. As IAVA’s intern, I was able to contribute to the intricacies that make Storm the Hill a memorable event.
Introductions on the first day of a crucial week in IAVA advocacy
The Road to DC:
I am not a veteran. I tried to enlist in the Air Force out of high school but was unable to join. Initially, I was intimidated by the potential of not belonging within an organization run by, and for veterans. That worry faded as soon as I started working for IAVA. I chose this organization as my internship site because although I’ve never served in the military, I have kept a desire for public service and understand the importance of advocating for veterans to receive everything they deserve and more.
My understanding not only comes from a previous aspiration to join the ranks but also because of my best friend. We both progressed through high school with the hopes of enlisting in the military together. Although I was denied due to medical reasons, he was able to successfully join the Army. It has been almost six years since, but our friendship is stronger than ever thanks to online video games. He is on his second deployment to Afghanistan and my hope is that he is taken care of when he decides to reintegrate into civilian life. Through my involvement with IAVA, I aim to do my part in making sure that happens.
My previous worries of not belonging within a community of vets were completely expelled during the week of Storm the Hill. I had the honor of meeting a diverse group of veterans, which we called “Stormers,” with individually phenomenal stories to tell. They were all so welcoming and equally interested in hearing my story even as a civilian. I was overwhelmingly excited to be joining the staff and Stormers in their many meetings with Representatives and Senators.
I left my home state of Colorado to come to D.C. for my internship with IAVA. Back home, the general belief among friends, family, and even oftentimes myself was that all politics were partisan. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most Representatives and Senators that we met with genuinely cared for their constituents’ requests and needs. This was especially true with issues involving veterans. Many who are not involved with politics assume that our political system does not have the public’s interests in mind whatsoever. My time on Capitol Hill has proved otherwise.
A Civilian’s Ties to the Big 6:
There was always a feeling of success and accomplishment when a Member of Congress would pledge their support to one of our priorities. IAVA has long focused on their Big 6 priorities that strive to provide better health access, education benefits, and to promote greater female service recognition for post 9/11 veterans. I personally have the strongest connection to two particular Big 6 priorities: Establishing support for veterans who want to utilize medicinal cannabis and combating suicide among troops and veterans.
I grew up in a small community in Colorado where three towns shared the same public high school. In a span of just a few years, four students within our community died by suicide. I learned that suicide is a complex issue. Veterans are strong warriors, but we must ensure that they get the care they deserve. The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act (S. 785) will establish innovative new suicide prevention initiatives, improve access to mental health care, and hold the VA accountable. Veterans need Congress to act fast and waste no time in passing this legislation.
Being from a state where recreational usage of cannabis has been legalized, I am bothered by the fact that veterans have yet to be granted access to medical cannabis. While I applaud the fact that states are decriminalizing cannabis, veterans who seek the drug for relief and better quality of life should be a priority. The solutions begin with research and the first step is the passage of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (H.R. 712/ S. 179). This legislation would require that VA research the safety and effectiveness of medicinal cannabis and was recently passed out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The work we’ve done in DC has rewarded us with an effective step towards access for vets, but we must keep fighting.
Talking with the team of Stormers after a successful meeting radiated an overall sense of the importance for the work that IAVA is doing. I heard many Stormer accounts that involved aspects of healing, reflection, and empowerment that became crucial in fueling a passion for veteran’s advocacy while others revolved around struggle, pain, and loss. Whether it was the pain caused by the effects of burn pits, the struggles of women in VA health centers, or the loss of a loved one that died by suicide, all narratives asserted a powerful request for change.
I am grateful to have been a part of this experience. To have met so many interesting people who are dedicated to leveraging their hardships for legislative progress. Storm the Hill has taught me that veterans issues are American issues. The stories I heard were from genuine people who have been failed by the system they fought to protect. It’s America’s turn to protect them.