Rick Noriega -- beloved in his native Houston, yet all but unknown here -- brought his mounting battle to unseat Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn to Dallas this morning. Standing outside City Hall, the Democrat and National Guard Lieutenant Colonel criticized Cornyn for “consistently voting against veteran services and benefits” and “not accepting that we have a generation of men and women coming back to places like Dallas” who need additional mental health care and other benefits.
“If we’re going to commit our men and women, then we need to commit to them when they come home too,” he said. “We’ve underfunded the VA. We know the travesty of Walter Reed Hospital.”
Noriega is gathering support for Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel’s G.I. Bill, which would expand education benefits for veterans. The Senate passed the bill today, but it faces a presidential veto. The legislation’s opponents, including John McCain and Cornyn, insist it would entice soldiers to leave the military and go to school. Noriega discounts such criticism. A free education is “no less than what our fathers and grandfathers expected when they came back from Word War II,” he said.
Noriega also highlighted the government’s efforts to cover up the rise in suicide attempts among active-duty soldiers, as well as the scandalous revelation that a Veteran’s Administration employee discouraged staffers at a Texas facility from diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in order to cut costs.
Noriega, in his slam of the Republican status quo, drew on his own military experience serving in Afghanistan.
“I witnessed it firsthand with my soldiers returning to face marital difficulties, adjustment difficulties,” he said, “I also heard testimony [in the Texas State House] that shows it’s not just people returning [from combat] now.” Many Vietnam veterans suffered for years after their return and have only recently been diagnosed with problems such as PTSD, he added.
Recent polls show that Noriega is in within striking distance of Cornyn, a notable accomplishment for an underfunded Democrat opposing a Republican incumbent in Texas. “Folks aren’t buying what [Republicans] are selling anymore,” the candidate said. “Texans are fed up -- They’ve been sold that two plus two equals five for too long.”
Asked what action he would take to address the reports showing increased suicide attempts among soldiers, he didn’t hesitate. “First I’d hire a new commander in chief and pull our men and women as quickly as possible from the quicksand that they’re in in Iraq,” he said. “Not one more drop of young American blood is going to make a difference in getting the government of Iraq to take responsibility for running their own country.”
Diane Wagener, a Coast Guard veteran, military wife and supporter of Vote Vets, was there to offer Noriega a hug and a check for his campaign. “Everything he’s saying is correct,” she said. “The benefits for military members have retreated over the years, even though we’re sending people into active combat.” --Megan Feldman