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There’s no argument the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s shoes were going to be hard to fill, especially when it comes to veterans.
Many veterans and their families praise Kennedy and his staff for their speedy and compassionate responses to their requests for help. As a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, he was also instrumental in keeping Hanscom Air Force Base open and bringing defense dollars to the state.
Sen. Scott Brown promised that veterans service would be one of his highest priorities when he won Kennedy’s seat in January.
"As a lieutenant colonel and 30-year member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, I will, I will absolutely keep faith with all of those who have served and get our veterans all the benefits that they deserve," Brown said in his speech, to loud clapping and cheering.
But Brown’s record so far is mixed. His attendance at military affairs hearings has been irregular (Attendance Spreadsheet). According to an analysis of transcripts or meeting videos from when he was appointed to July 15, Brown attended only 33 percent of Armed Services Committee hearings. His record there puts him in the bottom third of attendance among other senators on the committee. As a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, he attended 56 percent of the hearings, putting him in the top half of attendance. In two instances, hearing schedules overlapped and he attended one meeting.
"I want him to put his money where his mouth is," said Melida Arredondo, whose stepson, Alex, was killed in Iraq six years ago. "I want him to step up regarding veterans' services. It is a national issue. It is an issue that cuts across classes and race. It might not be the one that’s the most sexy."
Arredondo wants Brown to address issues such as veterans' unemployment, which is 11.5 percent for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I want him to put his money where his mouth is. I want him to step up regarding veterans’ services. It is a national issue. It cuts across classes and race."Melida Arredondo, whose stepson died in Iraq
Another veterans advocate says he’s astounded Brown is not regularly attending Armed Services hearings. He would only speak on background because his business depends on government defense contracts. His company gets a small piece of the nearly $10 billion in defense contracts the federal government spends in Massachusetts each year, and where that money goes is influenced by the Armed Services Committee. He’s worried Massachusetts defense companies won’t get their share if Brown doesn’t “show up."
Brown’s office would not comment on his attendance record at Senate hearings.
Charles Stewart, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says for a junior senator, attendance is important, but not everything.
"Brown is going to be better spending time reading the briefs that his staff produces and talking to members of his staff and others senators outside of the hearing room about that particular issue," Stewart said.
Another veteran, who spoke on background because he works for the state’s Veterans' Services office, says he’s heard some vets call Brown an “empty suit.” They are frustrated that he campaigned using his military background but hasn’t championed any new initiatives for veterans.
Brown’s office says he has authored and supported several measures to improve the lives of veterans, including voting for a caregiver bill, which expands mental health and counseling services, among other things. He has also inserted language in the FY 2011 defense authorization bill to better equip National Guard and Reserve units.
As for Brown’s record on constituent services for veterans, the opinions in the community are also mixed. Some vets praise the swift action they get from his office, but others complain his office is not responsive enough.
Michael Figlioli, state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Massachusetts, says he thinks Brown’s office is experiencing some growing pains.
"I think for somebody who's been there just a few months (he) is doing OK," Figlioli said. "I think in any organization — even our own, my own — there is always room for improvement, but I’m not hearing complaints."
However, 26-year-old Jon Zagami has a gripe. He’s a Brown supporter who contacted his office for help to get the VA to pay for his education loan after he served in Iraq. That was about a month and a half ago, and after an initial quick response, his case is unresolved.
"I haven’t heard anything back from him," Zagami said. "I realize I’m only one of millions of constituents here in Massachusetts but I really hope that after serving and getting injured and dealing with all the health consequences and issues that I have, that his office can come through and help me once again."
After WBUR inquired about Brown’s constituent services and Zagami’s case, his office immediately called Zagami and told him they are checking with the Army on the status of his benefits.
Constituent services are difficult to gauge because often there are as many success stories are there are complaints. For veterans such as Richard Camiolo, who served in Vietnam, Brown’s office was tremendous. Camiolo, a lifelong Democrat, says he's a Brown supporter now because the senator helped him get approved for a home loan program.
"He managed to help me get through all this red tape and as we speak right now I just signed the mortgage commitment," he said. "It just amazes me that this senator really and sincerely cared about my situation."
Brown’s office says it has a wall of "thank you" letters from veterans the senator has helped. And a spokesman adds Brown’s top administrative priority continues to be constituent services.
This program aired on July 23, 2010.
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