It was standing room only at the Veterans' Coffeehouse in Danielson, on May 29.
Sen. Chris Murphy came to give updates on the status of three issues of particular concern to veterans.
He talked about the VA Choice Program aimed at giving veterans access to community providers, rather than VA providers. He spoke about what Washington politicians are doing to address the high rate of soldier suicide in the country. And he spoke briefly about measures to give VA benefits to Blue Water servicemen and women suffering from Agent Orange related medical conditions.
Murphy called a bill passed in the senate recently one of the biggest reforms in the Veterans' Administration Choice Program. The bill would simplify the process for veterans to get authorization to see community providers, rather than travel long distances to VA facilities.
Murphy said it would make a big difference for veterans in eastern Connecticut who have to travel to West Haven or Rocky Point for service. The bill is on its way to the House of Representatives.
A second issue was the suicide rate among some veteran groups. According to a 2017 US Department of Veteran Affairs report, 20 veterans a day die by suicide.
"That's unacceptable," Murphy said.
Studies found that veterans with diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury who were released on less than honorable discharges were the most at risk of suicide. But because of the "bad paper" releases, those veterans were denied VA benefits.
"We've fixed that," Murphy said.
A House Veteran Affairs Committee recently passed a bill that would cover 90,000 "Blue Water" sailors for conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange. Previously, servicemen and women serving on aircraft carriers and ships off the coast of Vietnam have not been presumed to have been affected by AO exposure.
"We're working on it," he said.
The Department of Defense claims there isn't enough evidence to support links between the Blue Water sailors and AO-related illnesses, something Murphy doesn't buy. The bill may open the eligibility for veterans. Murphy said he wasn't thrilled with the bill because of how it would fund the estimated $1.1 billion cost of the benefits. Veterans would pay a fee on VA home loans.
"Vets shouldn't be the only ones who have to pay for it," Murphy said. "All of us should pay for it."
Murphy fielded questions on several issues. The AO issue did little to satisfy veterans who have been waiting decades for their health complaints to be legitimized. One vet wanted information on the status of benefits for those impacted by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Vets shared their concerns and asked questions about connecting private healthcare provider systems with the VA system, transportation improvements, and drug prices.
Murphy admitted there were some of issues he didn't understand fully.
"I'm at the end of my first term," he said. "I'm totally willing to learn."
"Why isn't the government doing more about Agent Orange?" asked John Kirschner.
The Vietnam veteran was diagnosed with cancer 41 years after his deployment. He has fought cancer five times. His son died from what he believes were Agent Orange related conditions.
"It's not just the vets, it's our families," he said. "There's something totally wrong with saying, 'We're working on it.'"