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7th District race puts spotlight on veterans issues

RICHMOND, Va. — Transitioning back into civilian life is difficult for many veterans, but for those injured in service — the transition back can be an even bigger change. Veterans with disabilities have demanded attention from candidates in Virginia’s 7th District to find solutions for their problems and improvements to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Preston Curry, a disabled veteran from Virginia Beach, said he wants politicians to engage and discuss their needs. He was sent to McGuire Veterans Affairs Hospital in 1995 after a Humvee accident left him with a broken neck.

Last week, Curry attended a town hall for individuals and families with disabilities in Chesterfield with Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger.

“It’s good that someone has the audacity to think of us, to have persons living with disabilities on their mind,” Curry said. “I’m just thankful for that, you know, more than anything. Just a thought of some type of discussion or conversation about certain issues.”

Spanberger’s campaign has focused on connecting specifically with veterans and individuals with disabilities.

“Our veterans have made tremendous sacrifices for this country. And I think it is a commitment that we as a country should have to show appreciation and respect for every sacrifice that they made,” Spanberger said. “And overall, our communities are stronger and our economy is better when every member of our community, be it a disabled veteran or someone who has other particular needs, is able to find gainful employment within our community.”

Spanberger’s opponent, incumbent Republican Rep. Dave Brat announced he is introducing a bill to bring VA independent contractors under the same medical malpractice procedures that other federal employees were held. The bill is intended to close a loophole that prevents patients from being compensated for negligence at the hands of an independent contractor.

Brat’s Tally Bill is named after Marine veteran Brian Tally, who had his malpractice claim denied.

Tally was left with permanent spinal injuries after a VA independent contractor didn’t run any tests, causing a staph infection to go undiagnosed. The goal of the bill is to increase accountability of both contractors and employees and would also require independent contractors to be identifiable.

Curry said he wanted to see more opportunities for housing and employment for people with all types of disabilities. But, the issue he’d like to see fixed the most is local parking enforcement.

Joshua Burch, a medically retired Marine, also feels that finding accessible parking can be an issue.

“When places do have handicapped parking, it’s just the handicapped spot. There are no sidelines or anything,” Burch said. “That’s kind of a struggle because it doesn’t really help me at all. I can’t get out of my truck or my van.”

But parking isn’t the only area of concern for Curry and Burch.

Curry moved to Richmond after being discharged from McGuire, where he had trouble finding housing. He said he noticed that once people find an accessible place to live, they normally stay there. He had issues finding a place that was truly accessible with the limited number of handicap accessible rooms in each apartment building.

“There’s no universal definition for handicapped accessible, especially when it comes to housing,” said Curry, who believes it’s important to look at each apartment. “And a lot of times, it does not work. A lot of times, you have to make the most of it because they’re at a premium. There are so few of them.”

Curry also said that finding employment is an issue for disabled veterans. Prior to becoming disabled, workers may have had a physical job that they may no longer be able to perform. He said that in order to get another job, they may need job training, and getting the money to do that is difficult.

But once veterans find a job, they still need transportation. Curry said this is a concern because many people with disabilities need wheelchair accessible vans, which can cost around $70,000.

The VA does offer grants to help with the cost of these vehicles and of adapting homes. Curry said the VA health care system met all of his needs, but he does wish the VA had done more to let him know about those grants. But he said he has seen major improvement since 1995.

Spanberger said she would work to ensure that within the VA health care needs and services are being met, along with establishing awareness with businesses and employers across the 7th District about the particular needs someone may have because of their disability.

Brat was asked for an interview for this story, but was unavailable for comment.

By Katrina Tilbury and Sarah Danial

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.