At 32 years of age and 11 months into his freshman term, Eric Swalwell is one of the least experienced members of the House of Representatives. But it didn't take the Pleasanton Democrat long to determine that veterans' rights would be one of his cornerstone issues.
"I've looked at the effort we put into recruiting kids, I've seen them when they're home on leave, and I've seen how they get treated after they get out," he said. "That's the frustrating and disgraceful part. We can do better. I think we can put pressure on the folks at the Veterans Administration."
His commitment to veterans was reflected in the eyes of more than 50 who turned out Saturday morning for "Coffee with the Congressman" at the Hayward Veterans Memorial, where he addressed concerns about delayed and denied disability benefits.
"We have a despicable situation in the Oakland office, with the worst backlog in the country," he told them. "Our country spends $1.8 billion a year recruiting people for the military. Then when they get out, it's almost as if we forget about them."
Swalwell, who represents the 15th District, explained that among the reasons he was drawn to this cause is that veterans, unlike most special interests, lack an organized effort to lobby on their behalf.
"They represent only about 1 percent of the population," he said. "They don't have the ears of the Congress, but I think their cause is important."
He said many military personnel who were seriously injured on duty have had to wait unbearable lengths of time before their claims were processed and their disability status determined. The average wait at Oakland is 585 days.
He blames an institutional attitude -- "Their mindset is not 'How can we help you?' but 'How can we reject this?' " he said -- and entrenched bureaucracy. A claim filed in Oakland is sent to Sacramento, which requests hard-copy records from San Bruno to be sent to the Midwest for scanning so electronic copies can be returned to Sacramento.
"This area is the home of Silicon Valley," he said. "You'd think they could find a better way to transmit information."
Many delays involve appeals. Depending on the severity of an injury and the degree of impairment, a veteran is entitled to a percentage of the maximum compensation package. But the percentage is often undercut.
"There's a fellow here today who started out at 30 percent and went to 100 percent -- for the same injury -- but only after a series of appeals and waiting 16 months," he said. "Stories like that make you wonder what's going on."
Even worse, he said, is the VA's absence of common courtesy. Veterans are given no update on the progress of their claims and no indication when they'll be resolved.
Swalwell has co-sponsored nine bills designed to remedy the process, and he's pressed the Oakland regional office to reveal the number of appeals upheld. If, as he suspects, that percentage is large, it likely means the initial assessment process needs to be rethought.
The congressman said he grew especially committed to this effort after visiting military bases in Afghanistan, where Americans put their lives at risk with each new day.
"I'm the same age as a lot of the men and women who are in Afghanistan," he said, "and that's not lost on me."
Swalwell may lack experience, but he has a clear grasp of his priorities.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.