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For Walorski, VA Scandal Is More Than Political: It’s Personal

walorski052714 445x296 For Walorski, VA Scandal Is More Than Political: Its Personal
Walorski’s father, who died in 2007, was a veteran. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Jackie Walorski had waited patiently for her turn at the far end the dais, the part reserved for freshmen like herself. But when her time came to question the witness, she could think of only one thing to say: “I’m so sorry.”

“If I could change your circumstance, I would. I would do it in a heartbeat,” she said, sniffling.

“My dad,” she hesitated, her voice trembling, “was a veteran.” The Indiana Republican paused again, sputtering — “that died of colon cancer.” She collected herself, shaking her head.

Walorski was speaking to Barry Coates, an Army veteran who has become the face of the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal involving excessive health care wait times. A potentially life-saving colonoscopy for Coates was put off for more than a year before doctors finally discovered a cancerous tumor with a terminal diagnosis, he told lawmakers on April 9.

Hearing Coates’ story moved Walorski to tears at that House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, and soon after she was moved to action, becoming the first member of Congress to ask for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his top deputies to resign, outpacing even her party leaders.

For Walorski, the memory of caring for her Air Force veteran father guides her.

As she said, explaining her tears: “This is so personal to me.”

A Military Past

Sitting in her office earlier this month for an interview with CQ Roll Call, Walorski excitedly shows off her collection of military challenge coins, displayed under a see-through coffee-table-top where she meets constituents. The medallions are each about the size of a silver dollar and bear the insignias of different branches of the military. Walorski had her own crafted to give to troops when she visits battle zones, such as Afghanistan.

“In the military, it’s a way to basically accommodate and give somebody something other than money to say, ‘Job well done.’ In the military it’s a big deal,” she said, pressing one into this reporter’s palm with a firm handshake, mimicking how she would greet a soldier.

“I’m a freshman, I’m just starting my collection,” she said.

As a freshman on Capitol Hill, it can be difficult to find your signature issue, to latch on to the one subject on which you can speak with passion and authority and set yourself apart from your peers. Walorski seems to have found hers.

The Midwesterner has fashioned herself as a fervent advocate for veterans and said she feels responsible not just for the more than 50,000 in her own district, but all Indiana veterans; she is, after all, the only Hoosier on the Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services committees.

Days before the hearing with Coates, Walorski stood at a news conference in the Capitol’s Rayburn Room under a portrait of America’s first commander in chief, George Washington. With Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, Walorski was advocating for the VA Accountability Act, a bill that would give Shinseki authority to fire managers in the wake of the revelations of deadly wait times. The bill has now passed the House and the Senate plans to introduce one of its own.

Sitting across from Coates at the hearing, though, Walorski said the bill did not seem like enough. In Coates, Walorski saw her father, an Air Force veteran who died in 2007 from the same ailment, colon cancer (though the VA was not to blame, she noted).

“My dad died of stage-four colon cancer that metastasized in his body. Here’s this young guy sitting at this table, and looking at all of us members of Congress and telling us what happened as a result of the negligence of a bureaucracy gone amok.” Walorski said in an interview in her office. “This guy has a death sentence, and I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘So, what am I going to say to him? ‘I’m sorry?’ Words aren’t enough. Sorry isn’t enough.”

In Coates’ family, she saw her own loved ones, drawn together to care for a dying man.

“I know what it was like,” she said. “My whole family took care of my dad, and I know what he is looking forward to in the next year, and it’s hell. Nobody should have to live through hell. A lot of these guys have already lived through hell in the service they’ve given to this nation, and they come back . . . to have a death sentence by no fault of their own.”

Within a month, the scandal had enveloped the VA and American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger took the near-unprecedented step of calling for Shinseki to resign. That same day, on May 5, Walorski echoed the group, which is, not coincidentally, headquartered in Indianapolis.

When the Personal and Political Mix

The issue presents the rare confluence of personal and political. Not a single one of her colleagues has questioned Walorski’s sincerity on this issue, and in fact most of those interviewed described her as intense and deliberate in the cause.

Yet back home, there is no overlooking the political benefits that come from being a strong advocate for the military. Walorski’s Democratic predecessor, now-Sen. Joe Donnelly, also sat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Last cycle, Democrats fielded veteran Brendan Mullin to run against Walorski, but she won with 51 percent of the vote.

Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at Indiana University South Bend and host of a local political affairs show, said Walorski, though not a veteran herself, effectively neutralized the issue during the campaign by being so outspoken for veterans.

“In her campaign she pledged to be their voice and to fight for them,” Bennion said. “There are certainly political reasons for her to take a strong stand on this, but I think this is intensely personal for her.”

Walorski said she has personally become involved in at least one instance in her own district, what she calls a “classic case” — a Vietnam War veteran who had issues getting medication and hospital treatment.

“I was on the phone with the VA director, the regional director . . . at 8:30 at night on a Friday going into a holiday weekend as they were going to boot him out of the hospital and make him go home,” Walorski said.

Her office sent his information to the VA’s inspector general, and the internal report about the alleged wholesale negligence at the department is due out any day.

Boehner, Miller and most of the House Republican leaders have held off on calling for Shinseki’s resignation until they see the results of the IG investigation, although last week House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California became the first GOP leader to call for Shinseki’s ouster.

Boehner has said repeatedly that asking for a change at the top distracts from the systemic problems at the agency. Miller, however, said he has no problem with his junior committee member being so forceful in asking for Shinseki to go.

“I’m just waiting until the final report comes out, but it may be that she was right from the get-go,” Miller said.