Cory Booker is on the presidential campaign trail, but when we sat down with him in his office in Newark, N.J., his focus on mental health and improved care for veterans was clear as the blue sky outside the windows.
What are your thoughts on PTSD?
CB: We’ve made incredible strides in raising awareness about PTSD, not just about the effects but also about how common the condition is within our society. Some of our greatest teachers on the effects of trauma, however, have been our brave service members and veterans, who deserve endless credit for raising awareness about PTSD. To better understand the effects of this condition, we must continue to expand both PTSD resources and research.
Why did you put up legislation to help veterans get service dogs?
CB: When I visited the Rutgers University Veterans House, I met a young Army veteran who suffers from PTSD and had to pay out of pocket for his service dog. Current VA rules require veterans to personally fund the purchase, training and transportation of a therapeutic animal, costing upwards of $25,000 per dog. This is unacceptable. Following that visit, I reintroduced the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service members (PAWS) Act, a bill I introduced with Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) authorizing a five-year pilot program through the VA that provides trained service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
How concerned are you about TBI?
CB: I’m very concerned. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have tragically resulted in a generation of veterans with traumatic brain injuries. In 2014, I had the privilege of sitting down with a veteran and his sister, who told me the uplifting story of how her brother thrived under the Assisted Living Pilot Program for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (AL-TBI) program. That same year, I co-sponsored an amendment that extended the VA program which provides intensive care and rehabilitative services to veterans with severe brain injuries.
How can we improve recognition and treatment of TBI?
CB: I believe that as a nation, we have to be there with open arms and support when we welcome our service members home. That starts with fighting for robust funding for scientific research through the National Institutes of Health. Improving treatments, diagnosis, and prevention for the full range of conditions or diseases is going to save lives, improve quality of life, and also save money.
What are your thoughts on how the prison system deals with PTSD?
CB: Many of the people who we are arresting have been suffering from PTSD for years, sometimes even decades. If we want our criminal justice system to reflect our founding principles as a nation of liberty and justice for all, we must promote a more compassionate, commonsense approach to rehabilitation. That’s why I introduced legislation that would provide support to state and local efforts to identify people with mental health conditions at each point in the criminal justice system to appropriately direct them to mental health services.
Why is PTSD something you wanted to take on in your political life?
CB: As the former Mayor of Newark, I had the privilege of getting to know many local veterans and it broke my heart to see how many were struggling to access healthcare or find housing. My office and I worked tirelessly to advocate for increased homelessness assistance, employment opportunities, as well as access to primary and mental health services for those with service-connected PTSD. As a nation, we are second to none in supporting our men and women in uniform in terms of training, readiness, and deployment. Where we too often fall short is maintaining that same level of commitment when they return home.
How do you feel about reports marijuana could help individuals suffering from PTSD?
CB: I’m very encouraged by those reports, but at the same time, I’m disappointed how long this type of research has been stymied by our federal classification of marijuana. I reintroduced legislation that would provide access to medical marijuana and enables research into the medicinal properties of marijuana. We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose—recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows.
Where do you believe we can do more to support veterans suffering from PTSD?
CB: As we work toward improving service provided by the VA, one area I plan to prioritize is to increase the prompt hiring of mental health professionals and how we can effectively leverage our technology to connect people with services. We must also do better to identify PTSD and other mental health issues early on, including during active service.
Describe your accomplishments in the areas of mental health and PTSD for non-veterans?
CB: I was proud to join many of my colleagues in Congress and countless Americans across the country in fighting against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA continues to help millions of people with mental health issues, such as substance use disorder and PTSD. I also co-sponsored several bills to help combat the opioid epidemic and help support children who have experienced traumatic events.
How will you build on your strong advocacy for mental health?
CB: First of all, I need everyone’s help to continue to block the repeal of the ACA which would leave millions of Americans without insurance or Medicaid. There are many individuals who rely on Medicaid, which was greatly expanded under the ACA, to get treatment of a mental illness. We need to raise the public consciousness on a health issue that we all have an obligation to better understand and deal with. It’s our patriotic duty.