Diane Benson (second from the right) plus her team and Vietnam Veteran Mo Bailey
Late in July, Writing Raven and I had a fundraiser at Phil Munger's (Progressive Alaska) beautiful home for our trip to Denver...and Democratic Candidate for the Alaska At-Large Congressional seat, Diane Benson was kind enough to show up and donate. It was then that I asked her the question that had been bugging me for months. "Did I meet you about 14-15 years ago?"
The answer was "Yes."
I was heavily involved in Blues music in both performing and the tech side. She was continuing her history of fighting for the rights of those who need protection. In this case, it was her fellow Alaska Native actors who were being exploited by the entertainment industry. We discussed that many people don't realize how much discrimination occurs in all aspects of the performing arts nor do they understand how hard it is on women in non-traditional roles.
Diane Benson is about as non-traditional as it gets. I've had incidents where I've told a few of many colorful experiences living and working for 25 years in Alaska...pretty typical stuff for most Alaska women...and folks have thought that I was making it up.
Diane's life makes mine sound uneventful, as recounted in a much-coveted article by The Nation:
Benson's strength and determination stems at least in part from her background. She "grew up in logging camps, boarding schools, foster homes and even on boat houses," according to Indian Country Today. At times she was homeless. She worked her way through college as a Teamster truck driver and was one of the first women tractor-trailer drivers on the Alaska Pipeline – she often was the only woman on the jobsite. Benson said that was a tough job to get.
"I could prove that I could do the job and the union stood up for me," she said. "And they stood up for me time and time again, and I will never forget that."
Educated in Alaska, she earned her Bachelors Degree, a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and is now working on her Masters in Public Policy. She also attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and co-produced a PBS documentary about Alaska Civil Rights. She ran sprint-races as a dogsledder and – along with her son –had 32 dogs at one time. But it wasn't until 2005 when her son, Spc. Latseen Benson, was injured by a road-side bomb in Iraq and was a double amputee that she turned to politics. She spent three-and-a-half months with him and his fellow-soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Those experiences have made her an outspoken advocate of Veterans and their issues.
Benson was surprised that in a recent debate she was the only candidate to repeatedly bring up veterans issues – one of the other candidates brought it up maybe once, if that. With 80,000 veterans in the state, responding to their issues is a key part of her platform.
It was from Walter Reed, her third trip back since her son's stay, that Diane held a press event last week.
Diane Benson had a lot of praise for the caregivers at Walter Reed and the many improvements--especially the addition of the new Military Advanced Training Center, which "greatly improves the services to the wounded."
She also had a great deal of praise for The Washington Post's continuing coverage of Veterans as well as conditions at Walter Reed, which got the ball rolling.
However, Diane's primary message was that of holding the government responsible to care for the Veterans who have served their country so valiantly:<div align="center"></div>
"I am embarrassed by the fact that our government is using the same techniques to deny benefits to veterans that insurance companies use to deny care to sick patients" said Benson. "There are nearly 400,000 veterans waiting for their claims to be processed. That's outrageous. The President and Congress should fix the system and make veteran health care a priority."
Benson mentioned the 1.8 uninsured Veterans in this country as well as the 290,000 Homeless Veterans. "We can't just rely upon the Good Samaritans of America to take care of our Veterans," she stated.
She also discussed the difficulty of receiving long-term care by severely injured Veterans, like her son, who is still using "temporary legs" because he has been unable to get the services to prepare him for his "permanent" ones.
Diane Benson also emphasized the importance of getting care to the Veterans for the "less visible" injuries like PTSD.
I had a discussion about PTSD and Veterans with Diane, which included a discussion about dealing with women veterans recovering from sexual assault and the VA's hesitancy to specifically target funds for their recovery.
"Anyone who knows anything about the trauma resulting from rape and sexual violence in general knows that it is a lifelong devastation to the spirit and the emotional well-being of that human being. PTSD comes from this as much as it comes from combat fatigue or being in war zones."
Diane Benson speaks with authority on this topic and has been an advocate for the protection of Alaska women and children; Alaska leads the rest of the country by an alarming margin in its rate of domestic violence and sexual assault. Benson has been one of the few candidates for ANY political office who is willing to discuss it much less propose solutions, so it is not a surprise that this advocacy extends to the women (and men) in the battlefield.
I have heard Diane Benson in previous discussions and at past appearances describe with great fondness her encounters with veterans, disabled and otherwise. She talked about one especially touching encounter where she told a meeting of veterans in Rural Alaska that she felt "at home" there and one veteran responded back, "because you are at home." In a rare moment, the retelling actually misted-up the former-union trucker as well as the crowd of Vietnam and Iraq-era veterans and supporters around her.
That kind of emotional response from an audience of veterans only happens in the presence of credibility. Diane shouldn't be at all surprised that the other Congressional candidates try not to bring those issues up.