When it comes to Nevada veterans, politicians can't do enough for them, especially in an election year.
Last week, Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who are locked in a tight Senate race, helped dedicate a new VA hospital in Southern Nevada that was a decade in the making.
The vast medical center on the desolate northern outskirts of the Las Vegas Valley is a gleaming example of the years that Berkley and the rest of Nevada's congressional delegation - Democrats and Republicans alike - spent pushing to get federal land and funding to build it. Heller, elected to Congress in 2006, eight years after Berkley, voted with his colleagues for budget authorization to spend $600 million to finish the project.
During the flag-draped dedication inside the center, Berkley said she "was adopted by our veterans" when she first went to Congress and "vowed to make sure that I would be a leading voice for our vets."
"We can never do enough for our veterans," agreed Heller, who since his Senate appointment has introduced bills to help homeless women veterans and offer small-business benefits to surviving spouses and children.
The two candidates, both children of veteran fathers, addressed more than 700 former members of the military - out of about 300,000 veterans in the state - who could be a deciding factor in the 2012 Senate race.
Veterans account for more than 10 percent of Nevada's population, men and women who have defended the nation and who enjoy generous accolades, patriotic parades and bipartisan support as their reward.
Former U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said Nevada's delegation has a history of working together for veterans. He was the original sponsor of the 2004 House bill to allow the federal land transfer of 147 acres for the hospital. Berkley co-sponsored the bill, and the states's two senators introduced a version in the upper house.
"We all worked on this stuff collectively," Porter said. "Veterans are an important constituency. They're active. They're organized. And they're respected. Their voices will play a big role in the outcome in November."
BATTLING FOR THEIR VOTE
In the battle between Berkley and Heller for the veterans' vote, the seven-term congresswoman has a head start thanks to her longevity in Congress and her former service on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. When Democrats controlled the House, she won a waiver to keep sitting on the panel even after she was appointed to the influential House Ways and Means Committee. She had to give up the veterans seat in 2009.
Berkley also has represented Southern Nevada - where 70 percent of the state's population and veterans live and where they have a new hospital to remind them of her long-standing support - in Congress for 14 years. Heller is better known in Northern and rural Nevada, GOP-leaning areas he represented in Congress.
On a more personal issue, Berkley has won plaudits from veterans' families for sponsoring a bill that requires the Veterans Administration to provide drug screening, detox programs and substance abuse counseling for returning veterans. The bill was named after Justin Bailey, a 27-year-old U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and died of an overdose while giving himself medications for post-traumatic stress under the care of the VA.
Berkley's first TV ad in her Senate campaign featured Bailey's father, a heartfelt one-minute commercial that introduced the congresswoman in Reno where voters don't know her or her work for veterans well.
"My wife and I felt alone in our grief," Tony Bailey says in the ad. "The Justin Bailey Act is meant to help veterans. To know I can see people that have been helped by my son ... I can't imagine being prouder."
Bailey of Las Vegas is among a cadre of veterans and family members who have offered public backing for Berkley.
Heller, too, has a strong record of supporting veterans dating to when he served in the Nevada Assembly in the 1990s and backed a resolution to help families of prisoners of war and troops missing in action. He, too, has a growing list of well-known military supporters in the state, 140 at last count.
In the Senate since May 2011, Heller has boosted his efforts to help members of the military coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by sponsoring or backing bills to get them jobs, education and retraining.
Bill Olds, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said he sees both Berkley and Heller working hard for veterans. As a result, he said the race may come down to economic or personal issues for some veterans.
"They both really go all out for the veterans," said Olds, a Democrat. "I can't take it away from her. She makes every effort. But I support Heller because we need good, strong young blood in the Senate."
If there are differences between Berkley and Heller on veterans, it's a matter of emphasis and on spending, as Republicans such as Heller look to trim the budget and Democrats look to expand government programs.
The Berkley campaign, for example, points to several Heller votes in 2007, 2008 and 2009 against House budget resolutions and conference reports that included increased funding for veterans. She voted for the budget hikes.
The Heller campaign counters that since he was elected to Congress he has voted for "full funding of the Veterans Affairs" agency every year. This year, he wrote leaders of both the House and Senate calling on them to pass the current VA budget bill without cuts and negotiate every other federal spending item separately.
"Veterans should not be held hostage by Congress because of partisan politics," according to Heller's campaign.
On another spending issue, Berkley has beaten up Heller for voting last year to cut $75 million from a housing voucher program for homeless veterans. It was part of a larger appropriations act Heller supported and Berkley voted against. Republicans argued the program didn't need more money since more than 10,000 of 30,000 housing vouchers were still unused. The VA administration agreed holding excess vouchers was a waste.
The Heller campaign's main attack on Berkley's record is related to President Barack Obama's health care law, which he opposed. It created a Payment Advisory Board, which critics fear could lead to rationing of health care. The law also reduced Medicare reimbursements rates, something GOP budgets backed by Heller also have done.
The National Military Veterans Alliance called for repeal of the advisory board and said Tricare reimbursement rates for members of the military, veterans and their families could fall, too, as Medicare rates drop.
One other vital issue in Nevada among a very active group of veterans is the fate of Filipino World War II soldiers. They have sought compensation for their service for decades and are now slowing dying out.
Luke Perry, a spokesman for the Filipino World War II veterans, said members of the growing Filipino community in Nevada may make their ballot box decisions based on who helps them most to get the money they deserve. Filipinos now make up about 4 percent of Nevada's population, or about 100,000 people.
"Obviously, we're pushing this election because that's the only time we can get their attention," said Perry, whose Filipino father-in-law is 94, ill and among veterans whose claims have been rejected. "The No. 1 issue with the Filipino community is the World War II veterans."
Filipino World War II veterans who are U.S. citizens were granted a one-time, $15,000 benefit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or the stimulus bill which Berkley voted for and Heller opposed. Other Filipino veterans of the war still living in the Philippines could receive $9,000.
But the VA has denied the claims of more than 24,000 Filipino veterans, including five who live in Nevada, ranging in age from 83 years old to 100, according to the Filipino-American Political Organization With Equal Representation. Perry is the new group's director of communications and government affairs.
The reason: The VA's Manila office and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis don't recognize the guerrilla rosters and other Philippine military papers the veterans submitted for their claims.
Both Berkley and Heller have been trying to help the Filipino veterans. Berkley has been co-sponsoring bills since 2004 to gain compensation for the World War II-era soldiers. Heller has not co-sponsored any bills, but he voted for the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2008 in the House, as did Berkley.
In May, Berkley and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, met with local war veterans in Las Vegas and discussed the Filipinos' dilemma. Berkley told the Asian Journal she would keep pressing for a law to help them.
"I will continue to do everything I can to make sure this bill becomes law," Berkley told the Journal. "This is something important, necessary and the right thing to do."
Heller has suggested another solution. On July 18, he sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urging him to establish a process for the Filipinos who fought alongside Americans in World War II and have documentation to work with military historians to verify them so they can get benefits for their service.
"Filipino veterans are a respected part of the Nevada community," Heller wrote. "They are entitled to a fair and complete examination of their record and we must be certain that all eligible Filipino veterans receive compensation they are entitled to for their service to the United States during World War II."
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., also has taken up the issue and has spoken twice on the House floor about it. The stepped-up moves by Heck and Heller to help the Filipinos have won them new friends in the community.
Filipino leaders also have reached out to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign, signaling their vote is up for grabs if Obama doesn't compensate their veterans, Perry said. He added that if Obama doesn't come through, perhaps by signing an executive order to grant the veterans benefits, the Filipino community in Nevada may vote as a bloc against Democrats up and down the ticket.
"We appreciate everything she's done," Perry said of Berkley. "But we need her to get the president to do this. We need action. The time for speeches is over."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.