Friday, January 25, 2008

Zirkelbach Leading Charge for Iowa’s Veterans and Citizen Soldiers

The Iowa House Veterans Affairs Committee’s new chair, Ray Zirkelbach, D-Monticello, is poised to lead the fight for veterans this session, vowing to pave the way for a smoother transition for Iowa’s growing population of citizen soldiers. “We’re dealing with a whole new generation of veterans and these are citizen soldiers,” Zirkelbach told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “These are National Guardsmen and reserves' soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have to transition back into their civilian lives. We don’t have an active-duty base in Iowa, so it’s going to be huge transition. We have a lot of homegrown veterans, a number of which are from rural areas.”

Although Iowa is faced with a growing influx of citizen soldiers from recent wars, Zirkelbach does not want veterans from past wars such as Korea and Vietnam to be forgotten. “They were kind of let down by our government in the past and now it’s my generation, the Iraq war veterans, who need to help get them up to speed,” Zirkelbach said.

Having recently returned from his second deployment to Iraq last year with the Iowa National Guard’s 133rd Infantry Battalion, Zirkelbach is no stranger to leading the fight. During his last tour in Iraq, Zirkelbach was a team leader with his infantry unit. His squad was responsible for providing convoy security in al-Anbar Province, where they helped bring in about one-third of the goods from Jordan.

While deployed to Iraq, Zirkelbach not only missed the birth of his first child, Claire, but the last two legislative sessions of the Iowa House. “The hardest part of my most recent deployment to Iraq was missing my family,” Zirkelbach said. “I missed the birth of my daughter and the first 16 months of her life. My wife and I found out right before we were being deployed that she was pregnant, so I missed the whole pregnancy, the birth and Claire’s first birthday.”

Missing the last two sessions also put a mental strain on Zirkelback, who said that it was hard not being able to actively serve and represent his constituents while he was deployed. “I told people back home that if you want somebody else in there, they should do so,” Zirkelbach said. “But they did nominate me and sent me back into office, which I am grateful for.” In his absence, the Eastern Iowa Democratic delegation and Sen. Tom Hancock, D-Dubuque, helped take care of Zirkelbach’s constituents’ concerns.

House Speaker Patrick Murphy, D-Dubuque, appointed Zirkelbach chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee during the legislative-session interim. “Murphy wanted me there as ranking member when the Democrats were in the minority and now that we are in the majority, he appointed me chair,” Zirkelbach said.

Although he didn’t benefit from the hands-on political experience during the last two sessions, Zirkelbach’s experiences in Iraq did give him a new perspective on how to approach his legislative duties. “I can sit back more and analyze things more deeply than I did during my first year in the House,” Zirkelbach said. “Iraq was an eye-opening experience, and I learned to appreciate things that you can only learn to appreciate while serving in a third-world country. It broadened my perspective on a lot of things.”

That said, Zirkelbach said he wants to set the tone this session by focusing on more issues of substance. “It seemed like a lot of the veterans' issues pushed since 9/11 have been feel-good goals,” Zirkelbach said. “As chair I want to focus more on substance issues that will address problems facing veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular mental-heath care and medical care – especially accessibility for veterans living in rural areas.” To address this, Zirkelbach introduced House File 2033, which calls for full mental-health parity for veterans and requires employers and insurance providers to cover veterans’ mental-health care and substance abuse as part of their health care.

Zirkelbach noted that compared with the other states, Iowa has consistently ranked close to the bottom when it comes to veterans' benefits. “Knowing how the state government works, we know that these changes won’t happen overnight, but we will focus on the immediacy of veterans’ issues by targeting some of the more important problems facing Iowa’s veterans,” Zirkelbach said.

Moreover, the Veterans Affair Committee faces the fiscal challenge of vying for funding for any existing and new veterans' programs. There have been some concerns in the veterans’ community that Gov. Chet Culver’s budget proposal doesn’t allocate enough funding for veterans, other than the money designated for the Marshalltown Veterans Home.

Zirkelbach remains optimistic about the budget and says veterans’ advocates need to be patient and take a look at the big picture. “Most of the funding for veterans-related bills comes out of other appropriation subcommittee’s budgets,” Zirkelbach said. “That’s another issue in itself. I would like to see the Veterans Affairs Committee have its own appropriations subcommittee, so we have more control on what we fund and how much we can fund on veterans’ programs.

Adding to the state’s fiscal constraints, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted a great deal of the financial burden on the states, which increasingly, have to pick up the financial tab for veterans' programs in their respective states. “The federal government has been dumping on states and using and abusing us. There’s a lot of misleading going on,” Zirkelbach said.

“It’s clear that the president and the people in control did not foresee the future problems facing our citizen soldiers. Members in our unit had to find out the hard way upon their return from Iraq. It’s never been such a mess, and you would think that the federal government would treat us in a better manner.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

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