State lawmaker and veteran works to help fellow Arizona National Guard vets

PHOENIX - NEW LEGISLATION TO HELP VETERANS

He may be an eight-year veteran of the Arizona National Guard, but Rep. Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) is a rookie when it comes to the Arizona State legislature.

The 26-year-old Phoenix native is only a freshman in the state's House of Representatives, but he's already making a big impact as the co-chair of the state's first-ever bi-partisan Veteran's Caucus in the legislature.

The Iraq war vet went straight to work when he was elected.  He drafted a bill aimed at improving the lives of veterans in our state. 

"We could be the state that shows the rest of the union what [the] most veteran-friendly state in the entire country can be," he said.

House bill 2484 targets joblessness among veterans by offering tax incentives to businesses in Arizona who hire veterans.  It will also help veteran's find work by allowing them to get advance notice of new state jobs before they are publicly posted.

The bill has already passed in the House, and he says he is confident it will make its way to the Governor's desk because of the support it has already received in Senate committees.

However, the bill is currently stalled until a state budget is released.

Another bill aimed at improving life for veterans recently became law. Republican Senator Sonny Borrelli's House bill 2076 allows the some state departments to fast-track the licensing process for veterans transitioning from military jobs into the transportation and medical industries.

CARDENAS' STORY

Cardenas deployed to Iraq as a 50-caliber gunner and a truck commander in the 259 th Engineer Company.  He served for an entire year overseas and witnessed the difficulties that can occur when a soldier tries to readjust to civilian life without help.

"When I see the amount of veterans that have committed suicide or the amount of National Guardsmen that have committed suicide, it's not just a number to me.  I know their faces you know?  I've served with them," he said.

Many soldiers - including Cardenas - experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) upon returning home from combat.  It didn't hit him right away, but when it did, he struggled with some dark moments.

"It's hard to describe," he said.  "The only thing that I could tell you for certain is you can't function.  Your brain doesn't think about other stuff."

PTSD is a growing problem, and soldiers and military leaders are becoming more aware of its debilitating effects.

Last year, the Army reported more than 12,000 new PTSD cases.   In the last decade, the number of National Guard soldiers who sought help from military treatment facilities has multiplied by more than 400 times.

For Guard members who report only for monthly weekend duties, getting help can be a challenge. The advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense found reserve and National Guard soldiers are also four times more likely to be denied their medical claims by the Veteran's Administration for things like PTSD.

Cardenas said some of his darkest moments occurred when he was attending college in California.  He struggled with guilt when he learned a fellow soldier had returned to combat in Afghanistan and had been killed.

"The thought was, ‘Why wasn't I there?'  You know?  I'm here, and I'm living.  I'm just going to class, and it's a beautiful day outside, but I felt that I didn't deserve that because I could have done something about it," he said.

"At that point it was hard to function, and that's when I realized I wasn't okay," he added.  He said there were times when he thought about ending his life.  "What's to stop me from just turning left and just driving off the cliff?" he said.  "That would probably be the easiest way because it was hard to deal with."   "Sometimes when I would drive places, I would see the road blowing up – even though I was in Los Angeles.  You know?  When does that happen?" 

Cardenas said he sought help from various sources and did a lot of talking about his experiences to help himself better handle his PTSD. 

Now, as a state legislator, he wants to help his fellow soldiers deal with the same issues. While his first bill addresses joblessness among veterans, he said he has future plans to develop a veteran's homeless shelter staffed with psychologists and plans to improve the manner in which veterans are able to complete their education.

He and other veteran lawmakers are also considering ways to tackle the methods by which Arizona National Guard members are able to access mental health services. 

"One of the ideas that the Arizona legislature is throwing around is actually keeping their soldiers or the National Guard on active duty for a certain amount of time following deployment," he said, "so it enables the units and their commanders…to have a better picture of their mental wellbeing."

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