Senator cites bipartisan work on behalf of an Arizona veteran lost to suicide—and the example of the
late-Senator John McCain—as she pledges to ‘get things done that matter to the state and country I love’
WASHINGTON – In her maiden speech to the U.S. Senate, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema today urged Congress to pass stronger protections for military servicemembers and veterans. Sinema highlighted her effort on behalf of an Arizona veteran lost to suicide, and cited the example set by the late Senator John McCain, as she pledged to “get things done that matter to the state and country I love.”
Click HERE to watch Sinema’s speech.
Sinema recently secured her bipartisan Sgt. Daniel Somers Network of Support Act in the Senate-passed version of the defense bill, and the U.S. House included the legislation in its version of the bill earlier this month. The legislation was inspired by Sgt. Daniel Somers, an Arizona Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD upon returning home. He lost his life to suicide in 2013.
Sinema has worked with Sgt. Somers’ parents, Howard and Jean, for more than five years to ensure all veterans get the care and support they need. In the U.S. House, Sinema introduced and successfully passed the Sgt. Daniel Somers Access to Care Act, which ensures veterans who worked in classified jobs can receive behavioral health services in an appropriate care setting.
Below is Sinema’s speech as delivered. Click HERE to view Sinema’s speech in Spanish.
Mister President, I’m honored to rise today to deliver my maiden speech as the senior U.S. Senator for the great state of Arizona.
I was sworn-in to this distinguished body just over six months ago.
I’m incredibly humbled to join only a dozen others who have had the honor of representing the great state-48 in the U.S. Senate – and I am filled with gratitude to the people of my state who entrusted me with this duty.
Continuing the work of leaders who have held this Senate seat, from Senators Barry Goldwater and Dennis DeConcini – to, most recently, Senators Jon Kyl and Jeff Flake – I have pledged to uphold Arizona’s proud tradition of putting country above party.
Most new Senators deliver their maiden speeches soon after being sworn-in. I waited so that I could use these six months to demonstrate to Arizonans – in actions more than words – exactly how I intend to serve our state in the Senate.
I promised Arizona that I would do things differently than others in Washington.
Americans see a lot of chaos in this city.
There’s intense pressure from all sides to spend time and energy on every scandal, every insult, every tweet, every partisan fight – and it’s easy to get distracted.
It’s the simplest thing in the world to line up on either side of a partisan battle.
What’s harder is ignoring the chaos and getting out of our comfort zones to build coalitions and get things done.
I promised Arizona I would do the hard work – and that approach has produced results.
In these first six months, two bills I sponsored to improve protections and services for veterans have passed the Senate and the House, and now await the President’s signature into law.
These new measures expand American Legion membership to veterans across the country, protect veterans from scam artists, and help veterans achieve the dream of homeownership.
Few efforts better illustrate my approach to service – or are more worthy of our attention – than that of the Somers family.
As a Congresswoman, I shared the story of Sergeant Daniel Somers on the floor of the U.S. House – and I’ll now share that story for the first time on the floor of the Senate.
Sergeant Somers was an Arizona Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq.
He served on Task-Force-Lightning, an intelligence unit, and ran more than 400 combat missions as a machine-gunner in the turret of a humvee.
Part of his role required him to interrogate dozens of terror suspects.
His work was deemed classified.
Like many veterans, Sergeant Somers was haunted by the war when he returned home.
He suffered from flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and other symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – all made worse by a traumatic brain injury.
Sergeant Somers needed help – and he and his family did what all families facing similar challenges are urged to do: they asked for help.
But when the VA’s answer came, it demonstrated exactly what happens when America’s veterans are left behind.
The VA enrolled Sergeant Somers in group-therapy sessions – sessions which he could not attend, for fear of disclosing classified information.
Despite repeated requests for individualized counseling, or some other reasonable accommodation to allow Sergeant Somers to receive appropriate care for his PTSD, the VA delayed providing him with suitable support and care.
Like many veterans, Sergeant Somers’ isolation got worse when he transitioned to civilian life.
He tried to provide for his family, but he was unable to work due to his disability.
Sergeant Somers struggled with the VA bureaucracy. His disability appeal had been pending for more than two years without any resolution.
And he didn’t get the help he needed in time.
On June 10th of 2013, Sergeant Somers wrote a letter to his family.
In his letter he said:
“I am not getting better. I am not going to get better. And I will most certainly deteriorate further as time goes on.”
He went on to say:
“I am left with basically nothing. Too trapped in a war to be at peace. Too damaged to be at war. Abandoned by those who would take the easy route and a liability to those who stick it out and thus deserve better. So you see, not only am I better off dead, but the world is better without me in it. This is what brought me to my actual final mission.”
That day, we lost Sergeant Daniel Somers to suicide.
Americans returning home from serving our nation must always have somewhere to turn for support.
I am committed to ensuring no veteran feels trapped like Sergeant Somers did – and that all of our veterans have access to appropriate mental health care.
Sergeant Somers’ story will sound too familiar to too many military families.
Perhaps less common is the astonishing bravery demonstrated by Sergeant Somers’ parents, Howard and Jean, after their son’s death.
Howard and Jean are in the Senate gallery today. I’m so honored to have them here as I share their son’s story.
Howard and Jean were devastated by the loss of their son. Nobody would have blamed them if they turned inward to deal with their grief.
But they didn’t. Howard and Jean faced the world, bravely shared Sergeant Somers’ story, and created a mission of their own.
Their mission is to ensure that Sergeant Somers’ story brings to light America’s deadliest war: the 20 veterans we lose every day to suicide.
While serving in the U.S. House, I worked closely with Howard and Jean to develop and pass into law the Daniel Somers Classified Veterans Access to Care Act – legislation that ensures veterans who serve in a classified capacity receive behavioral health services in an appropriate care setting.
Now, it’s time to take the next innovative step to provide the support our servicemembers and veterans have earned.
Servicemembers’ loved ones are not always aware of the resources available to them – resources that can prove critical when those servicemembers encounter challenges during active duty or after separation from the military.
The Somers family and I have worked over the past several months with the Department of Defense on new legislation to create a “Network of Support” for our military members.
In May, I introduced the bipartisan Daniel Somers Network of Support Act – cosponsored by my friend and colleague on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Republican Senator Thom Tillis.
Our legislation requires each new servicemember be asked for the names of loved ones he or she considers to be part of a network of support.
In return, the Department of Defense and the Red Cross will provide information about benefits and services available to military members.
By engaging families and loved ones from the beginning, the Defense Department can prepare and equip our military families and friends to better understand military life, to notice when servicemembers are in need, and help ensure servicemembers get the right kind of assistance or care.
We must do everything possible to empower family and friends who are the first line of defense in preventing suicide among our veterans and servicemembers.
This commonsense solution could be a game-changer for the men and women who have risked their lives to protect our freedoms – because isolation leads to tragedy.
We’ve worked with Congressman Scott Peters, who introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House.
And, working as a team across party lines, we successfully included the Network of Support legislation in the national defense bill passed by both the Senate and the House over the past few weeks.
I’m proud of this accomplishment, and we have more to do.
When servicemembers transition from active service to veterans status, they face old and confusing regulations that can be difficult to navigate even for those able to care for themselves.
We must ensure that veterans receiving care from the VA also have a Network of Support in place to help them thrive and prosper in civilian life.
I’ve spoken directly with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who expressed his support for extending the Network of Support to veterans, and I look forward to working closely with him to get it done.
As we continue this work, I am urging my colleagues to join me in expanding this critical program. Together we can help ensure that all veterans have networks to turn to so they never have to face their challenges alone.
The story of Sergeant Somers and his parents – the failure of the VA bureaucracy to provide the support this Arizona veteran needed, and the resulting tragedy – is not a story that dominated the national headlines.
It wasn’t a political scandal, or a partisan food-fight to which members of Congress were pressured to respond.
It’s not what reporters in the Capitol hallways ask me about, and it’s not what people tweet at me on a daily – or hourly – basis.
You’ll never see a push notification on your iPhone about a bill like this.
But this is the kind of work that matters.
It matters to Sergeant Somers’ parents and to veterans across my state.
It matters to military families and loved ones.
It matters to Arizona.
And it’s exactly why, as Arizona’s senior Senator, I won’t spend my time focusing on areas of disagreement – because spending energy on the latest tweet, the latest insult, and petty politics simply doesn’t move the needle for everyday people like the Somers.
As a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I’m fortunate to serve with Republican Chairman Johnny Isakson and Ranking Member Jon Tester – two Senators who demonstrate every day what can get done when leaders put aside their differences and work toward common goals.
Our bipartisan legislation got this far thanks in part to support from Senators Isakson and Tester, as well as the leaders of the Armed Services Committee – Chairman James Inhofe and Ranking Member Jack Reed.
However, in this effort and so many others, I sorely miss the leadership of a former Armed Services Chairman: my personal hero, John McCain.
So many of my colleagues in this body came to know and love Senator John McCain for his military heroism, and for his years of leadership in the Senate. Back home in Arizona, Senator McCain is also a hero for what he represented in public service.
What Senator McCain said in his last speech in this very chamber shapes my service to Arizona every day. He said:
“… make no mistake, my service here is the most important job I have had in my life. And I am so grateful to the people of Arizona for the privilege – for the honor – of serving here and the opportunities it gives me to play a small role in the history of the country I love…
He went on to say:
“Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people… What a great honor and extraordinary opportunity it is to serve in this body…”
Senator McCain talked of what is possible when this Senate works the way it was meant to.
He stood for everything we stand for as Arizonans: fighting for what you believe in, standing up for what’s right even if you stand alone, and serving a cause greater than one’s self.
He taught us to always assume the best in others, to seek compromise instead of sewing division, and to always put country ahead of party.
One of Senator McCain’s last acts in the Senate was to shepherd last year’s annual defense bill into law – the same annual bill which, this year, includes our Daniel Somers Network of Support Act.
I hope that we’re making Senator McCain proud with such important work.
So, with Senator McCain’s example lighting the way, and with the trust of the people of Arizona shaping my service, I recommit to ignoring political games, and focusing on upholding Arizona values, to get things done for the state and for the country I love.