Democratic congressional candidate Denny Heck told a small group of local veterans Thursday that his first act if elected will be to fight to ensure that all wounded veterans are awarded Purple Heart medals.
Speaking at the Pacific Barber Shop in Kelso, Heck told of a "good friend" whose two sons were both deployed to the Middle East twice. One of the young men was "blown up three times," suffering a brain injury, as well as damage to his neck and back, Heck said. Although the Army declared him disabled, it denied him a Purple Heart, he said, "because he had no lacerated skin."
"The very first act I am going to commit as a member of the United States Congress is to respectfully request the presence of the appropriate liaison to the United States Army," Heck said.
Heck's campaign stop in Cowlitz County on Thursday took him to the tiny Kelso barber shop, where he was ringed by a handful of Veterans of Foreign Wars members as well as local school officials, community members and a few firefighters.
Heck also toured the Port of Longview, where he quizzed administrators about their needs and future plans.
At the barber shop, Heck told the veterans how his brother died of cancer after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
"So when you call me and you talk to me about something that relates to (veterans' issues), I want you to know that it goes about as deep as it can go," Heck said.
VFW District 16 Commander Bob Roche, of Cathlamet, said the Purple Heart issue was important. But, he said, "The thing that's really important to us is jobs."
"The VFW would like to see focus given to these kids that are coming back (from Iraq and Afghanistan)," Roche said. "They should be the first choice if they're qualified for every federal job that becomes available."
In addition, Roche said he wants Congress to turn its attention to young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are committing suicide at increasing rates.
"These kids are coming back from their second and third tours. They don't have a job. They don't see any future," Roche said. "And it's just easier for them to do something else. Then they don't have to wake up every day or lay awake at night thinking about it. The suicide (rate), we've got to do something to stop it."
During his brief remarks, Heck touched briefly on economic issues, saying, "my basic reason for running is I want to help get people back to work. We've got the highest unemployment in this area of any region in the state."
But for much of his visit, Heck glad-handed voters and talked about sports and his South Dakota roots.
At the Port of Longview, Port Commissioner Bob Bagaason and Deputy Executive Director Norm Krehbiel told Heck about problems that prevent the port from creating more jobs or bringing in more revenues. A single-track train bridge over the Cowlitz River has become a "choke point" for trains approaching and leaving the port, Heck was told. Several berths need to be deepened by three feet so ships can be loaded with more goods. And, they said, 30 acres of mostly empty warehouse space needs to be put to use.
The port officials also outlined plans for the construction of the new Skyline Steel pipe manufacturing plant, which broke ground at the port last month and is expected to employ 65 full-time workers.
"Let's do that about a hundred times over," Heck said.