Rep. Roe’s mission to rescue fellow veterans from trauma, unemployment

While in transit through the Charlotte airport en route to Washington, D.C. last September, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) heard someone yell for a doctor.

“It’s just one of those things where God puts you in the right place at the right time,” Roe recalled.

The man in distress was a 51-year-old father of three who’d had a heart attack near the gate Roe was about to board.

“He took two breaths after I got there and we hooked him up to the [automatic external defibrillator] and he had a flat line, so we defibrillated him and did CPR on him,” said Roe, who was a practicing obstetrician before entering Congress.

Like any good doctor, Roe followed up — on Sunday, he called the man whose life he saved to wish him a happy Father’s Day.

“He’s now had a bypass operation … and is doing great.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) happened to be catching the same flight as Roe and saw the event unfold.

“I fully admit I was completely incapacitated with fear and Phil was a true American hero,” Mulvaney said. “Every kid in the country should know who Phil Roe is as part of their civics class.”

Roe downplayed his actions. 

“It wasn’t a big deal to me. I was almost embarrassed by it because it’s just what you do. You don’t even think about it,” Roe said. “You just do what you can do and other people did too. Someone made the call, people did everything I asked them to do — everybody helped.”

Another reason the airport emergency didn’t faze Roe: He served two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam War. 

He says that experience is why it was so important to him to receive a placement on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He’s now doing everything he can legislatively to help fellow American heroes.

“I served as a medical officer in the military, so I have a real passion for taking care of soldiers,” Roe said. 

“[Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] is hugely important when you have more veterans killing themselves than dying in combat each year. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”

Roe said he thinks Pentagon leaders are taking the issue very seriously and applauded them for trying new treatments.

“I also want to make clear that PTSD is something that shouldn’t be looked at as a disability,” Roe said. 

“We should be treating these people to get back to being fully functional, not that you’ve got this problem and you can never work or do anything again.” 

The military needs to be more “proactive” in getting traumatized soldiers the treatment they need to put them back in the workforce so they can be productive citizens, “not lock them up in the room somewhere,” he said.

“Think about being 30 years old with the rest of your life in front of you,” Roe said. “If you get shot at, I guarantee that changes your life. If you don’t get anxious over that, something’s wrong with you.”

Roe said he’s proud that his committee passed the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, H.R. 674, which set up job training programs for returning veterans.

“The VOW Act just passed and that’s a huge issue for veterans, as far as transitioning folks from [the Department of Defense] to the civilian workforce — getting the training that they need to get a job.”

Roe said a major problem for veterans is that they don’t have careers waiting for them upon their return home.

“I was drafted when I was in the middle of my [medical] training, so I had finished medical school, had done two years of training, got drafted, did two years of military service, then came back and did two more years of training,” Roe said. “I had something to come back to, is my point, and I had a good family and I had a job to come back to and I had a purpose. A lot of these folks don’t.”

Roe said one of his goals is to make sure today’s veterans don’t get the same kind of welcome reception that he did after returning from South Korea, where he was stationed during the Vietnam War.

“I was part of a military that the country forgot and we didn’t treat our soldiers right when we came out,” Roe said. “I just came home and went back to my job and nobody said, ‘How you doing?’ … It cost us problems that we’re still paying for today. We’ll never do that again, and I don’t think that we are, and I’m proud of that.”

The other benefit that has changed for veterans since Vietnam is the post-9/11 GI bill, which allows veterans to transfer their education benefits to their children. Roe called the program “generous” and “amazing.”

Roe also serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which has debated whether to extend the Stafford student loans rate at 3.4 percent for low income students. If Congress doesn’t agree on a way to pay for the current reduced rate, it will increase to 6.8 percent on July 1.

Roe said that if Congress had agreed to let student loan rates float at market levels, they would be dramatically lower today.

“If the government were not involved in student loans right now, a Stafford student loan would be at an interest rate of 2.6 percent instead of 6.8 percent,” Roe said. “Student loans are the next big iceberg that’s out there.”