Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Hillary Clinton Gets Close, Candid With Military Families

At a rare unguarded event, military families share struggles with the former secretary of state. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

Hillary Clinton greets the families of fallen soldiers at an awards program in New York City for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Twitter / Shushannah Walshe / Via Twitter: @shushwalshe

Hillary Clinton looked down at the photo of the man in uniform.

A woman had emerged from the crush of people around the former secretary of state to present her with the picture of a young man — her son. Other mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers gathered around Clinton as she eyed the photo at a veterans event on Wednesday night in New York City's Herald Square.

"This is my son, who committed suicide," the woman told Clinton.

"This is his year anniversary. Thirty-five."

"I'm so sorry," Clinton said. "I'm so, so sorry."

She held the woman's hand, held her elbow, rubbed her arm.

The scene played out again and again on Wednesday at Stella 34, the Italian restaurant inside Macy's department store, where Clinton accepted a lifetime service award at an emotional and highly person event for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The 20-year-old organization, the only veterans group dedicated exclusively to families, worked with Clinton when she was a U.S. senator from New York. In 2006, she was TAPS' honorary chair.

It was perhaps Clinton's most intimate public gathering since she left the State Department in February of last year — more like state events she used to hold as senator than the large speeches and more controlled book tour stops that have occupied the last six months or so of her time.

When Clinton finished her speech before a crowd of about 150 people, the TAPS families approached Clinton with their stories, getting close. The security detail that follows the former secretary of state and first lady at all of her events did not interfere, and reporters there were not confined to a designated press area.

One man named Robert Meshanko, who described his nephew's protracted struggle with the Department of Veterans Affairs, urged Clinton to run for president. "If you run, and I hope you do, fix the VA and fix the mental health system," he said. "My nephew was lost, and let me tell you something...he really got screwed."

"At the VA?" Clinton said, moving closer.

"At the VA. They need to help these people. They need to point them in the right direction. They pointed him in the wrong direction. He tried to get help."

Clinton asked where — in what direction? The "wrong jurisdiction," Meshanko replied. "They sent him there, and he went there, and they said, 'We can't help you. You're out of our jurisdiction.' Why didn't someone know that?"

"I don't know," Clinton said, shaking her head.

Another woman approached Clinton and told her it had been two years since her brother committed suicide. "Did he get any help at all?" Clinton asked.

"Not the right help," the woman said. They took a picture together with the woman's cell phone, before Clinton squeezed her arm and said, "Thank you, dear."

As a senator, Clinton served on the Armed Services Committee and worked with TAPS and other veterans groups to increase benefits for families of fallen service members — a project she highlighted in her speech. "We fought, we cajoled," Clinton said, noting that immediate benefits for families rose from $12,000 to $100,000. She also said she pushed the VA to better assist survivors with health coverage, home loans, education, and access to government housing.

Bonnie Carroll, the president and founder of TAPS, said the group had worked with Clinton to expand its work with survivors to include families who have lost people serving in the State Department, certain government contractors, and other government agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency.

"We count you as family," Carroll told Clinton, "and we love you a great deal."

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