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WASHINGTON — About 20 years ago, Vietnam veteran John Miner met with Bernie Sanders to discuss veterans' issues and left feeling worried.
Sanders, a rumpled-looking, self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont who had been elected to the House in 1990, was "very liberal" and "had that wild look about him," said Miner, of Bennington, Vt. And his questions seemed uninformed. Miner didn't think veterans would get anywhere with Sanders.
But Miner and other veterans say they're fully behind Sanders as he plans the agenda of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, which he's chairing this Congress. It's Sanders' first full committee chairmanship.
Since his days in the House, the 71-year-old independent has won veterans' support by consistently focusing on the issues most important to them — from health problems caused by Agent Orange and Gulf War illness to disabled veterans' fears that their benefits will be cut.
Among Sanders' latest priorities is a backlog of 900,000 disability claims at the Veterans Affairs Department that keeps veterans waiting months or years for benefits. He will hold a hearing on the issue on March 13.
"I would want him to speak for me," said Miner, past president of the Vermont State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America. "I think he's come a long way. He's stepped up and made a difference in a lot of veterans' lives."
On paper, Sanders doesn't have a lot in common with veterans.
He never served in the military because he was too old to be drafted when his draft number came up. He protested the Vietnam War as a University of Chicago student in the 1960s and stressed his opposition to the war during his failed Senate bid in 1971.
He opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. And though he supported the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long called for faster withdrawal of troops. He often decries this country's "sky-is-the-limit" defense spending.
But it's not unusual to find Sanders surrounded by former service members, speaking out on their behalf.
"When you ask people to put their lives on the line, and they do, you are asking as much as you possibly can of any human being," Sanders said during an interview. "Once you do that as a society, as a government, then you have an obligation to make sure that they and their families are protected as best you can."
Sanders traces his links to veterans to his House service in the 1990s. He served on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and spent "hundreds of hours" in hearings with VA officials.
Hearings and town halls he held in Vermont inspired him to advocate for expanded health coverage for illnesses related to Agent Orange and for compensation and treatment for veterans suffering from Gulf War illness.
"We saw soldiers who had come back from the Gulf. I remember guys who had lost 100 pounds and were in really bad shape," Sanders said. "I was not impressed by how the VA had handled Gulf War illness."
Veterans' war stories have made an impression on Sanders. He's heard enough of them to know that anyone fighting a war comes back changed. During a recent interview in his Senate office, he recalled listening to one service member talk about waking up in the middle of the night and nearly strangling his wife.
"These are guys who lived through a period where 24 hours a day their survival was on the line," he said. "So it's important to understand what veterans have gone through."
Sanders firmly believes war is a last resort and gets upset with his colleagues who vote to send U.S. soldiers into combat. One of his reasons is pragmatic. He said the wars President George W. Bush "forgot to pay for" is one reason for today's ballooning deficits.
"When you go to war, what has got to be included in the calculus is not just the cost of sending soldiers over and the planes and the tanks and guns," he said. "It's also taking care of the people who served. That is a very, very expensive proposition."
Sanders has worked to expand educational benefits for veterans and increase funding for veterans programs. Those include the Vermont Veterans and Family Outreach Program, where veterans help other vets transition back to civilian life after war.
Last year, the Disabled American Veterans gave Sanders a congressional leadership award, in part for helping secure grants that assist severely disabled veterans in adapting their homes to accommodate their disabilities.
He's also been a "strong voice" on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"Bernie can really epitomize a message that we're trying to convey: It doesn't matter how you feel about war. We all have a moral obligation to support the warrior," Rieckhoff said. "We like to believe that everybody should support veterans, no matter where you're coming from or what your background is, and I think that Sanders can be a guide who shows that."
Vietnam veteran Ed Laviletta conceded that politically, he and Sanders are "strange bedfellows." A conservative Republican, Laviletta, of Highgate Center, Vt., doesn't agree with Sanders on defense spending and won't talk to him about Vietnam because "it would end up in a shouting match."
But he's been pleasantly surprised by Sanders' advocacy for veterans' health issues and his push to fund community-based outpatient clinics, which save veterans a trip to the White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"We've had our fights, our disagreements, but it's never on the VA," said Laviletta, a former state commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars. "His new chairmanship is right on. I'd pick him over anyone in Congress."
Sanders heads the Veterans' Affairs Committee at a time when homelessness and suicide among veterans have reached alarming levels. The VA reports that about 22 veterans commit suicide every day, a 20 percent increase since 2007.
Rieckhoff said the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is "cautiously optimistic" about Sanders' leadership.
Sanders' status as an independent might help him challenge President Barack Obama to make veterans' issues a higher priority, Rieckhoff said. But Sanders also could face challenges that someone with strong party ties might not face.
He took over the committee chairmanship from Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a rising star in the Democratic party who was "a fantastic advocate for us," Rieckhoff said.
"Is he going to have power?" Rieckhoff said. "I think that's the question."
Miner, now a member of Sanders' veterans advisory group in Vermont, said Sanders is a "perfect fit" for the job because he's worked on all issues facing veterans. He wants Sanders to continue challenging the VA on veterans' behalf.
"We're still very much concerned about our children and grandchildren and the effects of Agent Orange, and our government doesn't want to talk about it," he said. "Same way with Gulf War illness. (Sanders) is making a difference. We have a long way to go."
Sanders said he's excited about heading the Veterans' Affairs Committe, but called it a "daunting responsibility."
"This is a big deal," he said.
His most immediate concerns are the disability claims backlog and a proposal by House Republicans — supported by some Democrats — to lower annual cost-of-living adjustments in benefits for disabled veterans.
Sanders whipped out talking points from a staffer stating that more than 3.2 million disabled veterans who receive disability compensation benefits from the Veterans Administration would have their benefits cut under the proposal.
"That is the most immediate concern," he said.
Sanders said he also will focus on expanding programs that have worked well in Vermont, such as the veterans outreach program and the community health clinics. He also will push to expand outreach by the VA so veterans, especially in rural areas, know how to access their benefits.
But he said many of his cues on where the system can be improved will be taken from veterans.
"I'm kind of a — always have been — a grassroots advocate," he said.
Sanders said that, unlike his other committee work, his new chairmanship will be more of a "hands-on" job that reminds him of his service as mayor of Burlington.
"I'm on the Budget Committee. Well, you know, the Budget Committee — a trillion here and a trillion there, right?" Sanders said. "But if I know that as a result of my efforts, thousands of veterans now are able to access health care who otherwise would not, it's kind of tangible. It's more satisfying in a sense because the results are not 10 years down the line."