Beck: A heroine for war heroes

Meredith Beck always wanted to follow in her older brother’s footsteps. And while she did not become a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, Beck knew that the military was in her blood.

She may not be flying dangerous missions around the world, but Beck has dedicated her life to fighting for those severely hurt in U.S. war operations. Her battles are often tough, involving mounds of red tape and complicated policy and regulatory matters.

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After serving eight years as a staffer in the Senate, Beck in November joined the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) as national policy director, spending most of her time in congressional offices, the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) advocating for the needs of injured servicemen and -women.

WWP, founded by John Melia, a Marine wounded in Somalia, fills a critical gap for a new generation of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

When he first founded the organization, Melia and his family would buy comfort items for the soldiers, pack them in backpacks and drop them off at soldiers’ bedsides at the Army’s Walter Reed hospital. Melia realized that service members often arrive with nothing more than the hospital gowns on their backs.

WWP now does more than distribute its trademark backpacks. The organization provides services and programs that aid in the rehabilitation of the wounded and ease their transition to civilian life.

It also helps injured troops to rebuild their lives by transcending the limits of their disabilities via participation in adaptive sports programs.

Beck’s path to the organization was uncommon. She met her current boss a couple of years ago in the Russell Senate Office Building parking garage during an emergency lockdown.

Melia, who earlier that day had come with his wife and a wounded service member to meet with members of the Veterans Affairs Committee, found himself stuck in the garage with about 100 staffers and several senators, Beck recalled.
“They could go around and talk to people,” she said. “It really made an impression on me back then.”

But Beck did not decide to join WWP until she attended the so-called traumatic brain injury (TBI) summit last September. There, about 20 families who had issues with TBI care communicated with representatives from the relevant committees in Congress as well as government agencies.

“It was such an effective and well-run summit that I was drawn to them,” she said, adding that the summit “sealed the deal” for her.

Beck’s new job seems made for her. As a former military legislative assistant to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the former chairman of the armed services personnel subcommittee and a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Beck immersed herself in two of the senator’s core issues at the time: military health insurance and the treatment of military detainees.

Although she jokes that she became an expert in “healthcare and lawyers” while working on military issues, it is that same expertise that makes her so effective in her new position.

Those who have known her since her early Senate days in the office of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, describe her as determined and capable of distilling complicated issues.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she would work on military issues someday, even though, as a recent Davidson College political science graduate, she started off answering the senator’s phones. She quickly became Warner’s military legislative correspondent and soon worked with the committee in various functions.

She knew she could never become Warner’s military legislative assistant because she did not have any military experience.
After some time off from the Hill, she found her stride in Graham’s office.

“She’s always been a passionate and very opinionated person,” Graham’s former legislative director, Aleix Jarvis, said. “When she was working on something, you could guarantee that it was going to get done.”

Jarvis, who is now the government affairs director for Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, recalled trying to dissuade Beck from taking the job with WWP, thinking that she would be a great asset for a lobbying firm on K Street.

“She was really passionate about this and she really wanted to do it and find a lot of intellectual reasons of why to do it. She saw a real need there,” Jarvis said. “You certainly hope that there are more people in the world like her that are doing the right thing.”

Beck jests that she sees her colleagues and friends on the Hill more often now than when she worked there. She does spend a considerable amount of time trying to effect change through legislation.

Momentum generated by the recent scandal at Walter Reed is aiding Beck’s cause this year to bring attention to what must be done. She has been working with several Senate offices to tackle TBI, one of her organization’s main issues.

Among a myriad of other matters, she is following closely the fate of two pieces of legislation that have been referred to the Senate Armed Services panel, which is readying for the 2008 defense authorization markup.

One of the bills, sponsored by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), both members of the Armed Services panel, seeks to keep service members with traumatic brain injuries on active duty for one year after they receive medical assessment of their ability to perform the activities of daily living.

The idea is to give the injured soldiers and their families, if they choose, time to figure out their care options and to be able to resort to private rehabilitation before retirement.

The Heroes at Home Act of 2007, sponsored by Clinton and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), also a committee member, seeks to improve the detection, assessment and treatment of TBI among wounded service members and to expand support for the victims of TBI and their families.

Among the key aspects of the bill is a provision to improve the troops’ screening process before they deploy. It would include a computer-based assessment protocol to measure cognitive functioning before and after deployment. Often, mild or moderate TBI can go undetected or be confused with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The act also seeks to provide families who struggle to care for a loved one with opportunities to undergo training and certification for dealing with brain injuries and psychological injuries. By becoming certified, family members who become full-time caregivers would qualify for compensation from the VA.

Beck also has her sights on intricate insurance fixes that she hopes the leaders of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), will take up this year. Among them is a one-time fix to the Traumatic Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance that would cover all service members injured between October 2001 and December
2005 not just in combat, but in other accidents as well.

While Beck spends a lot of time trying to find legislative solutions to policy on the Hill, she also navigates the intricate webs of regulations at several government agencies, trying to open doors and establish communication.

“At a minimum you have two agencies — the Department of Defense and VA — who are involved in this care,” Beck said. “At a maximum you can have up to six agencies all with different mechanisms for giving support, all with separate application processes and separate bureaucracies.

“It is confusing for me, and I can’t imagine what it is like when you have a wounded service member and you are trying to work on all these systems,” she said.

The focus is on helping injured soldiers transition to civilian life, Beck says, which means addressing issues ranging from health insurance to employment and housing programs.

“We have changed the way we gather intelligence for war, we changed our force structure and now we need to change the way we address the issues of these kids who come back home,” Beck said.