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Lobbying Congress for Veterans Issues

November 17, 2018

November 17, 2018

If you are a military veteran you might be interested in helping with public advocacy for veterans issues.  I can vouch that you don’t have to be a war hero.  Okay, sure.  It’s not for everyone.

Here’s what happened to me, definitely no war hero, but nonetheless a military veteran.

You see, a couple months ago, Rick Hegdahl, who works for Vets Vote on the West Coast somewhere, phoned me to help make a TV ad of veterans endorsing Montana Senator Jon Tester for re-election.  Tester is a senior senator for veteran’s affairs, endorsed by Vets Vote.  Rick got my name from my son Bob, speech writer for the AFL-CIO union in DC.  I guess these guys often talk to each other.

Well, my wife P. and I had been door knocking for several months for Tester, so I emailed Rick a copy of my official military discharge certificate DD214.  (evidence I was a bona fide veteran).  Rick also got a brief biography of my military service.  I didn’t provide many details of my seven years as a soldier with the marines.  I worked in supply.  That’s what I said on camera too.. . . Hmm.  Maybe that’s why they didn’t use me in the TV ad.  They had a Korean War veteran and they used him.

Although I enlisted during the war in Vietnam, I didn’t tell Rick that I never went there, although my DD 214 had that information.  

In fact, my family and I lived during the 1970s in Orange County, California.  Military pay was low so I delivered the Orange County Register before work as a supply sergeant at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro.  I repaired volkswagens too, but only for transportation.  We finally saved enough money to make the move back to Montana.

Like I said, Vets Vote did not use me in their TV ad, so I didn’t get famous for that, although it was a cool experience.  There was a sound guy who held a boom with a microphone that looked like a giant caterpillar.  A director kept having me repeat my speech about being a veteran and whether a given candidate supports veterans’ issues.  Another guy fixed up this huge white reflector and an American flag was set up behind me.  Someone had me sign a release and another person tossed a sandbag on the ground where I was supposed to stand for the camera.  They worked me for about half an hour.

Anyway,  a couple weeks ago Rick gave my name to Garett Reppenhagen, a combat veteran who works for Vets Voice Foundation out of Colorado.  Vets Voice is a non-profit to promote military veterans’ political involvement.  They often visit DC to lobby.  I couldn’t pass it up.  I like military veterans and I like public lands.

Back before this trip to DC, Garett asked me for a brief military biography.  This time I painted a more realistic picture of my service in the Marines, plus my service as a commissioned officer in the US Public Health Service.  

I thought my honesty would disqualify me from making the trip with Vets Voice.  I didn’t want to misrepresent myself.

Would they reject me for being lack luster?  People know I can take being rejected for being authentic.  Besides, I was a member of the Billings Symphony Chorale and I knew I would miss rehearsals during the concert production week, and thus be unfit to sing with them.

To my surprise, Garett said I was good to go.

Here’s what I had sent him for a bio:

  • I enlisted as Private in the USMC November 23, 1969, at Butte, Montana.
  • Trained at MCRD San Diego, Camp Pendleton, and Millington, Tennessee.
  • In Tennessee, at Captain’s Mast for AWOL, I struck my commanding officer in the face when he dared me to do it.
  • I was convicted of assault at court martial, but the conviction was reversed the following year by the U.S. Court of Military Appeals.  (Do a web search: Daniel Robert Struckman v. The United States of America).  I was permitted to remain in the Marines in the mean time, while my case was under appeal.  The conviction was stricken from my record.
  • Assigned to supply section of HMM-161 helicopter squadron in Santa Ana, California.
  • Deployed to Iwakuni, Japan, for 12 months with Marine Air Base Squadron 12 supply.
  • On return to the US, assigned to Third Marine Aircraft Wing supply, El Toro, California.
  • Reenlisted in 1973.  Continued as wing-level supply sergeant for Third Marine Aircraft Wing.
  • Honorably discharged as E-6 (Staff Sergeant) from USMC in September, 1976.
  • Studied journalism and pharmacy at the University of Montana using GI Bill.
  • Commissioned as US Public Health Service Lieutenant in 1988, assigned to pharmacy in Lame Deer, Montana, Indian Health Service Clinic.  Also served as pharmacist at IHS Hospital at Crow Agency.
  • Retired as USPHS O-6 (Captain) in 2005.

I loved hanging with about a dozen other military veterans.  This diverse group ranged in age from about 30 to 70.  They were of many races and national origins.  Most were men, but we had two women, both marines.  Many had lost buddies in such places as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. One man from Southern California grieved for friends lost in the recent shooting in Ventura.  

We lingered at war memorials listing the names of our soldiers killed in action.  I saw tears well and heard voices break at the memorials,  all the while we stamped and shifted in the cold and snow that hit DC.  Seemed like we were always walking to offices miles apart, then waiting in office building hallways.  I don’t know how many times we went for coffee while we waited 45 minutes until our next appointment with a senator’s staffer.  How many trips to the rest rooms (which in these DC buildings had marble floors, walls and fixtures).

We wore suits and ties for our visits on capitol hill.  Dress-up clothes weren’t warm enough for the freezing weather in DC, but I thought we looked damned respectable.  We hurried cross campus to stay warm.  After the outdoor exertions we got into a senate office to sweat profusely.  I didn’t know lobbying was such an athletic endeavor.

We went to lobby members of congress to (1) permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and to (2) get dedicated permanent funding for it, on parity with other such federal projects, such as funding for the backlog of maintenance for the national parks.  

We found support both from Republican Senator Steve Daines and from Democrat Senator Tester.  Well, we didn’t actually speak with the senators, who were in session at the Capitol.  We spoke with their various staff members.  Turns out most of the senators and representatives support veterans and support the LWCF because there is hardly a county in the US that hasn’t received funds for improving battlefields and local park infrastructure, to provide access to islands of public lands surrounded by private.  

Like I said, before I spoke to Garett I had never heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  Turns out it had been funded for more than 50 years by offshore oil and gas royalties.  Recently the LWCF has lapsed.  

Our mission was to lobby senators and representatives to reinstate LWCF permanently through authorization and dedicated funding, preferably during the congressional lame-duck session.  A staffer in House Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office assured us the LWCF was one of the four top priorities for public land legislation.

One of us reminded a congressional staffer that our military veterans had unselfishly sacrificed themselves for the United States of America and many were passionate about outdoor issues, especially preserving access to public lands—lands which accessibility had been paid for by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  The American people owe a debt to veterans, he said.

People who have read many posts in this blog, know that I have been for years an ardent hiker along with my spouse P, and eager dog, Gunther.  People know how I struggle with depression.  We walk the dog, I pick up his poop.  In DC I still had a couple of poop bags in my pockets.

Walking our dog Gunther on the primitive trails in Two Moon Park aided my recovery from depression.  Oh yes, prescriptions and the attention of a psychiatrist as coach.  (I don’t know if Gunther alone would have been enough therapy for my recovery, but I am sure he helped.)

As you know, my psychiatrist has tapered me off all the antidepressants, a process that took, perhaps, a year.  I murmur, “Gunther.”

Because now I continue to rely on Gunther and our walks in the parks on trails using roads and parking lots paid for, in part, by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  That’s right.  I found a list on line of the projects in Montana, listed by county, funded by LWCF.  Almost every of our 56 counties has been benefitted.

In DC I learned that my struggle with post-military mood disorders was common among veterans.  I wasn’t alone.  We know depression is potentially lethal.  We often hear of veterans committing suicide.

Our leader, Garett, told us that upon returning to the United States after his combat tour as an army sniper, he drove to a wilderness trailhead, then spent two weeks hiking by himself in nature to get his life back together.  He said he benefitted and wanted to help other veterans.

Garett told how he guided a group of military veterans to Alaska to fly in to the interior to canoe back through the wilderness.  

Other veterans told me about how hiking and camping in primitive natural areas was essential to their readjustment.  Could be Alaska, could be Nevada, Colorado or Montana.  For me it was the city parks in and around Billings, Montana.  Also other places, like the LWCF-funded improvements to Lone Pine State Park near Kalispell, Montana.  Last memorial day we discovered Lone Pine after visiting the WWII memorial at Conrad Cemetery where my uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr.’s name is listed.  His nickname was “Bud,” like the name of this blog.

I have a new appreciation for mundane things.  Things one might overlook,  like short gravel roads and parking lots, features that are too expensive for many municipalities to build, but can become realities with the LWCF moneys.  Yet there are many projects remaining, hence the need for the permanent re-authorization of the LWCF.  I am thinking of the Terry Badlands in Eastern Montana, worth visiting, but I was told by someone who lives near there, that you need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to get near enough to hike there.  I can think of other important outdoor places that have no public easement, being islands of public land, surrounded by private land with fences and “no trespassing” signs.

Soon as I’m done with writing a draft of this, P., Gunther, and I are headed to a primitive riverside park a few miles away that was improved through a $20 thousand grant to improve access.

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