Arizona Republic - Parents of veteran who killed self attend Obama speech
The parents of an Arizona combat veteran who committed suicide after struggling to get treatment from the Phoenix VA Health Care System attended the State of the Union on Tuesday as guests of U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and a California congressman.
Jean and Howard Somers have been outspoken supporters of Sinema since she worked with them in 2013 to introduce a bill that would make it easier for veterans to receive mental-health treatment.
Sinema re-introduced the bill this session.
The Somerses filmed a campaign ad last year for Sinema, praising her efforts to help veterans facing similar challenges as their son Daniel.
He had been frustrated by the difficulty of finding therapy because of his knowledge of classified information.
The invitation from Sinema and Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., who represents the couple's home district, demonstrated "their commitment to veterans and ... the continuation of the amazing support they've given us," Howard Somers told The Arizona Republic by phone shortly after leaving the speech.
The Somerses said they wished President Barack Obama had touched more on veteran issues, but understood his need to cover quickly a broad range of topics.
Obama made one passing reference to it, saying his administration had "made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care."
"It's amazing when you hear a talk like this what he has to deal with on
a daily basis," Howard said.
"But on the other hand, we are out there trying to ensure that this subject does not disappear from the headlines. ... I was somewhat disappointed, but I can't say surprised."
Jean Somers said she was hopeful for bipartisan cooperation in the new session after watching Republicans applaud Obama's speech more than she had expected.
"I came away really positive that there is actually room for compromise," she said, although Howard joked she was looking through "rose-colored glasses."
Sinema said she invited the couple because their work makes a difference in the lives of millions of veterans and their families.
The Phoenix Democrat took a harsher tone against Obama for only vaguely referring to the VA crisis.
"Our veterans deserve courage and leadership on this issue," she said. "I will not be silent."
Beyond listening to the president's proposals and networking with members of Congress on veterans issues, Jean said she enjoyed most the pageantry of the speech. It was impressive, even if she had to sit a few seats away from her husband and peer around a column to see the chamber.
"It was kind of like going to the political Oscars," she said.
Among the other announced guests of Arizona's delegation members:
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., brought a former congressional staffer.
Freshman Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., invited a Tucson high-school student.
Gilbert Valenzuela, 17, is an honors student at Alta Vista High School and member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson.
"Gilbert exhibits an incredible passion for giving back and making a positive difference in his community through volunteerism and community service," McSally said.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., brought conservative Phoenix talk-radio host Mike Broomhead of KFYI.