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Iraq Veterans Against the War and Nurses Unite for Veterans' Right to Heal

Terry Davis

Move the Money Chicago (MTM) is a campaign that brings together organizations working to end the wars, tax the rich, and move the money to the funding of human needs. This has involved groups that don’t always work together: unions, civil rights and anti-war groups, community issue organizations find common cause in the campaign to MOVE THE MONEY. Sometimes this can lead to beautiful and unexpected results. Here’s a great example:

Organizers from two of our MTM organizations, National Nurses United (NNU) and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) got acquainted through MOVE THE MONEY. It turned out that both had issues with the Veterans Administration hospital in Chicago. Veterans were concerned at the quality of mental health care that patients, especially women--many suffering from PTSD or the aftermath of sexual abuse (1 in 3 female veterans have been sexually abused by their fellow servicemen)--were getting, and the growing epidemic of veteran suicides (now at 18 suicides a day). Nurses at the VA, represented by NNU, were frustrated at low (unsafe) staffing levels, inadequate training, and lack of effective problem resolution by the Administration.

The organizers immediately realized the importance of unifying their struggles to bring power to both. This way medical staff and veterans would be allies instead of pitted against one another. NNU and IVAW decided on a joint protest at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago for April 10, a rally and informational picket called “SAFE STAFFING FOR VETERANS RIGHT TO HEAL” (see the flyer below).

As organizing commenced for the action, NNU staff informed the Administration at the VA about their plans. The reaction was swift: the directors at the VA, clearly concerned about the protest, offered to meet over the demands of both NNU and IVAW, and asked that the protest rally be called off. It was agreed, and the meeting took place with the Jesse Brown VA Director and Nurses Director, the Regional Network Director, and representatives from the VA central office. Short informational testimonies were presented from NNU and IVAW about the problems.

A female veteran explained how re-traumatizing it was to go to the “womens clinic”, intended as a safe space for women, only to find it full of men. It turned out not to have a permanent location, but was only open certain days. At other times, the area was full of men there for something else. Even one of the directors at the meeting didn’t realize this.

Out of this meeting the parties reached some general agreements over needed changes. This is a brief summary of what was discussed:

1. Safe staffing and vacancy concerns at the Jesse Brown VA will be addressed and NNU concerns will be investigated with action taken as needed. Additional nursing staff in the Mental Health unit, as well as social workers and patient advocates, will be added, up to 40 additional positions.


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2. Appropriate training for VA staff on how to address patients with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), MST (military sexual trauma), and TBI (traumatic brain injury) with better understanding of military culture and language

3. The issues at the women's clinic (lack of a private space for women, for example) will be addressed; a secure space will be found

4. Commitment to deal with issues of bullying and intimidation.

5. Regular monthly meetings of NNU and the VA to ensure these issues are addressed. There will also be ongoing consultation with the IVAW on issues concerning veterans!

At one point, one of the directors mentioned the question of funds to meet these demands. The response? The directors recently got bonuses—now it is time for a bonus in care!

The specifics on much of this are still being worked out, but a good start has been made. Communication has opened up not just between veterans and nurses—but with the VA all the way up to the national level. Issues that have been a major problem are now going to be addressed. And with the addition of more staff, we’re even talking about job creation! Now the two organizations want to “take it on the road” by approaching the VA in other cities.

We can learn a lot from this action. The alliance between IVAW and NNU, and the prospect of a picket line sponsored by both, got instant attention from the Administration. It shines a bright light on the impact solidarity can bring to our struggles. May this be a model for all of us working in labor, peace, budget, environmental fights—united we can be twice as strong!

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Terry Davis is Chair for the Committee for New Priorities.

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