This is the third legislation introduced by Sen. Krysten Sinema in the name of Daniel Somers.
Inspired by one Arizona veteran’s difficulty accessing health care after suffering traumatic injuries in Iraq, the Senate late Tuesday unanimously passed a bill intended to improve access to support services for veterans.
The Sgt. Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support Act asks the Department of Veterans Affairs to run a pilot program that would share information about veterans’ benefits and services with their loved ones, aiming to create a network of support. It is the third piece of legislation authored by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., in Somers’ name and now awaits action in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Empowering veterans’ loved ones with crucial resources will help ensure veterans never feel alone during their transition to civilian life,” Sinema said in a written statement. “Today’s passage of our bipartisan bill moves us one step closer to getting all Arizona veterans the care and benefits they’ve earned.”
A member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sinemaintroducedthe legislation after learning about Daniel Somers, a U.S. Army veteran, who took his life in 2013 after struggling to obtain care for and manage debilitating health issues he developed during two tours in Iraq.
After more than 400 missions in the turret of a Humvee working as a member of an intelligence unit, Somers returned home with traumatic injuries to his brain, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia, among other conditions.
The injuries drastically harmed the quality of his life, causing flashbacks and nightly panic attacks, depression and overbearing anxiety, according to an open letter titled “On Losing a Veteran Son to a Broken System” written by his parents, Howard and Jean Somers, and published in the New York Times.
Somers struggled to obtain the health care services he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was enrolled in group therapy through the VA, but was prohibited from speaking about his experiences directly because his work, as a member of an intelligence unit, was classified. His requests for individualized care or other accommodations were delayed, causing gaps in care, Sinema said in her maiden speech on the Senate floor in 2019.
Somers’ parents described long wait times, turnovers in health care providers and trouble qualifying for care as issues their son faced in the same 2013 open letter. He paid for out-of-pocket care when the veterans services were not enough.
“From time to time he attempted to re-enter the Veterans Affairs system, only to experience the persistent problems of access and availability,” Somers’ parents wrote.
At age 30, Somers died in Phoenix, leaving behind a note that outlined his feelings of abandonment by the U.S. government.
His story is one of many of what is now recognized as the VA scandal of 2014, when a number of VA hospitals failed to provide adequate care for veterans, some who died while waiting for long overdue medical treatment. The scandal instigated multiple high-level investigations and a congressional effort to reform the VA.
In response to the Senate passage of the bill, Howard and Jean Somers said the services it will provide would have helped their son.
“We cannot thank Sen. Sinema and her staff enough for sponsoring the Sgt. Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support bill,” the Somers said in a written statement to The Republic. “The fact that VA will now have to share information with our Veterans’ family members and loved ones regarding its programs and benefits will be of incalculable assistance. If this policy had been available to us and our son, whereby we ourselves would have been aware of what VA has to offer, we feel that his tragic outcome might very well have been averted.”
This bill is a necessary companion piece to the already enacted Sgt. Daniel Somers DoD Network of Support legislation.
Last year, Sinema successfully introduced and helped pass the Sgt. Daniel Somers Network of Support Act in the annual defense authorization bill, which helps active service members in accessing support services in the same way the bill passed by the Senate Tuesday does for veterans.
Another bill called the Daniel Somers Classified Veterans Access to Care Act was signed into law in 2016 after Sinema introduced it in the House. It aimed to connect veterans who worked in classified roles, such as Somers, with behavioral health services.