DUBLIN — Nearly a dozen East Bay veterans scrawled their signatures Tuesday morning across a ceremonial, wall-sized copy of recently signed legislation that will boost federal attention to the development of state-of-the-art treatment of traumatic brain injuries.
Led by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who shepherded the legislation through Congress, the event marked the successful passage of the first of several of the congressman's initiatives to improve medical services for military servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill establishes a Department of Veterans Affairs panel that will assess and recommend treatments and establish education and training programs for medical professionals. It also boosts mental health services for families of service members.
Traumatic brain injury is often called an invisible wound of war. Returning service members may not experience or recognize the symptoms for months or years after they come home.
According to the Defense and Brain Injury Center, the number of service members diagnosed with traumatic brain injury increased from 10,963 to 27,862 between 2000 and 2009. A traumatic brain injury is the result of a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain.
"Veterans Affairs is so backed up with cases and workload that something like TBI can fall through the cracks," McNerney said. "I wanted to make sure that we do this right."
Sentinels of Freedom co-founder Mike Conklin praised the legislation as an incremental but essential component of what the nation must tackle as its soldiers return home. He also lauded McNerney.
"We are a nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization," Conklin said. "But what I can say is that whenever we ask Jerry McNerney to help, he stands up for veterans issues."
The first signature on the wall came from Elizabeth Bailey, one of the Sentinel's scholarship recipients.
The group helps injured service members rehabilitate and regain lives as close to normal as possible. Bailey survived two bomb blasts while serving with the Army in Iraq and is now living in Pleasanton, where she will start classes at Las Positas College in a few weeks.
Another signature belonged to Spike Schau, the California coordinator for Warriors' Watch, a motorcycle troop that rides in support of veterans and provides support at the funerals of fallen soldiers.
"We have a lot more work to do, but we are climbing the ladder one rung at a time," said Schau, clad in his signature black beret and patch-covered motorcycle leathers.
President Barack Obama signed the bill May 5 as part of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act.
A former cadet at the U.S. Military Academy whose son, Michael, served in the Air Force, McNerney has taken particular interest in veterans issues during his three years in office.
The House recently passed McNerney's provisions in the Assuring Quality Care for Veterans Act that boosted and expanded continuing education reimbursement levels for Veterans Affairs medical staff, the first increase since 2001.
The additional education will help increase the number of professionals trained in the treatment of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, McNerney successfully advocated for pay increases contained in the recently adopted House version of the National Defense Authority Act.
Military members exposed to hostile fire, work under threat of imminent danger or who have been separated from their spouses and children would collect higher pay. The increases would apply to roughly 400,000 service members and their families, according to McNerney's office.
The provisions are part of the larger defense reauthorization bill now under consideration in the U.S. Senate.
McNerney has also advocated for the construction of a veterans medical facility in San Joaquin County and continues to fight to keep the Livermore veterans center open in some capacity.