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Veterans 'storm' Capitol Hill in blizzard

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Aimee Sherrod and Paul Rieckhoff, right, met with Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Tuesday.
Aimee Sherrod and Paul Rieckhoff, right, met with Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Tuesday.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America leads legislative push this week
  • "Storm the Hill" campaign targets politicians and policy-makers
  • Blizzard in Washington has caused problems, but they are determined to push ahead
  • Priorities include reducing unemployment, modernizing disability claim system

Washington (CNN) -- The blizzard that hit Washington couldn't have come at a worse time for a leading veterans group -- but the name for its legislative push this week is certainly fitting.

Despite the monster snowstorm, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization is taking its Storm the Hill campaign directly to members of Congress and administration officials to push for veterans' rights.

Because of a fresh round of snowfall Tuesday night -- and the federal government being closed much of this week -- many of their meetings have been canceled or postponed.

Group founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff, an Army veteran, said that despite "snowmageddon," they've been cracking away at the meetings that are still on.

He added that members are beyond determined to show up.

"We have a guy who came in from Michigan, who took four different planes to get here," he said. "Most of our folks have been through much worse than a blizzard, so they're able to handle this and keep driving on."

John Penders, a former Navy lieutenant who flew combat missions over Iraq and the Arabian Gulf, took the setback in stride.

"The snowstorm threw some wrenches into the plan, but in some ways, I think it has brought the group closer, because we've spent some quality time at the hotel learning everyone's stories," said Penders, who traveled from Massachusetts. "It's been a great bonding experience. And I think it's made days like today -- when we get out on to the Hill -- that much more important and critical and more effective."

On Tuesday, Penders met with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, among other Republican and Democratic members, to get his message heard.

"We just came from meeting with Congressman Van Hollen. ... To have those members listen to the issues as we describe them and the solutions that we prefer is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Penders, who served on active duty from 2000-09. "They have been very receptive."

Van Hollen said the veterans did a good job of explaining pressing issues, especially mental health care and disability claims.

"It was great to see our Iraq and Afghanistan war vets on the Hill. They were not deterred by the snow," he said. "I think Congress will want to move expeditiously to address these issues for our veterans."

Rieckhoff admitted that although some officials have pushed back on the group's goals, the important part is to "remind them that this is as important as the economy and health care, and a lot of those issues are woven into this."

The veterans were broken into seven teams: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot and Golf.

See a full list of veterans taking part this year

The groups discussed their meetings in real time, using the Web site to update veterans across the country on their progress with rolling Twitter feeds, photos and videos.

In one update, Team Charlie wrote: "Just met with Sen. Isakson (GA). Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and huge supporter of veterans. He says that we're spot-on."

Team Bravo added: "Words of advice from Sen. [Max] Baucus: to get anything done in town, you have to 'squawk' and back it up with solid data and good intentions."

And it was an important moment to meet with the veterans, according to Baucus.

"We had a great meeting," the Montana Democrat said. "Our service members are some of the most selfless, heroic Americans among us, and Montana has one of the highest sign-up rates in the country."

Baucus is chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, which has control over tax credits. According to his office, Baucus is pushing a hiring credit to reward employers that hire veterans who have recently left military service.

The veterans group recently released its 2010 legislative agenda, which lists its priorities as helping female veterans, reducing unemployment among veterans and eliminating the stigma associated with mental health care, among other issues.

The key issue this year, Rieckhoff said, is modernizing the outdated disability claims process at the Veterans Administration.

That issue touches close to home for Air Force veteran Aimee Sherrod, who has post-traumautic stress disorder.

Sherrod, who served tours in the Middle East, was medically released from duty in 2005 because of her PTSD. After coming back, she faced an uphill battle getting her disability claims fully approved, a process that she said took nearly four years.

"If the decision on my claim had been right the first time, I would have had four years of less grief," said the mother of two. "But the Air Force is really good as far as diagnosing me and treating me. It's when I got out of the military when things went downhill."

But things picked up over time, especially with the help of a special friend: a service dog named Bear, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever.

Bear is a graduate of Dog Tags, a program established in 2006 that touts itself as Service Dogs for Those Who've Served Us. Inmates with the Puppies Behind Bars program train dogs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

"He helps me in social situations," she said. "When we go out, he makes sure people don't invade my personal space. ... It's like having a friend literally watching your back for you. I don't like dark rooms. He's trained to turn on lights for me. And he's trained to remind me to take my medications."

The Storm the Hill campaign is just one part of a larger effort to educate politicians and policy-makers about the plight veterans face.

According to Rieckhoff's group -- the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan -- the effort has resulted in "tremendous progress for veterans" over the years.

"In 2008, IAVA campaigned for a new Post-9/11 GI bill, to ensure new veterans have access to the educational benefits they have earned," according to a news release. "Less than five months after the campaign, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was signed into law, sending thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to college."

The group also points to a 2009 effort in which it campaigned for advanced appropriations for the Veterans Administration to allow for predictable funding for veterans' health care. The measure was signed into law by President Obama last year.

As for this year?

"There's a lot of work ahead. By no means is [Storm the Hill] the end. It's a big first step, and an important one," Rieckhoff said.