Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans from the Valley are looking to increase their presence in Washington, and are ready to take their place in a decades-long battle for a Veterans hospital in the Valley.

Young veterans, in conjunction with the Veterans Association at South Texas College and the Veterans Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley, are beginning a campaign to get as many Veterans from the Valley enrolled with the VA as possible in the coming months.

Veterans groups will also be looking to start fundraising events meant to increase the presence of Valley veterans in Washington D.C. and “make sure the fight for a VA hospital continues”, according to Rey Leal, an Iraq War veteran and campaign organizer.

“Right now what we need to do is step up both, the numbers of veterans and advocacy, actively lobbying for veterans,” said Leal, who has been to Washington twice to lobby for veterans issues. Leal went in 2009 to lobby for advance appropriations for the VA, and to call on reform of its benefits claims systems in 2010.

“We told Homer (Gallegos) that we want to be more involved in actions, trying to get the hospital as the younger generation of veterans. That’s what we are trying to do, trying to get as many of us, not just younger veterans, but as many of us as we can enrolled,” Leal said about a recent meeting with Gallegos, the chairman of the Veterans Alliance.

Enrollment fairs are slated to begin in September, but fundraising events will begin almost immediately, according to Leal. Details of the upcoming events are still in the planning stages.

“I know that sometimes what you need is boots on the ground. That’s basic,” said Leal about upcoming enrollment efforts. Veterans have long said the number of veterans in the Valley has been severely underestimated, particularly following a study by consulting firm Booz Allen in 2008. The study said the number of veterans in the Valley was around the 40,000 mark. Veterans say the number in the region is more than twice that amount.

“This is an argument we have had, telling them ‘this is information, but it’s old information, and we understand that this is what you have to work with, but we would be more than glad to give your office the up to date information you need’,” Leal said. “We want to tell that ‘we would be more than glad to help you out with any questions you may have’.”

The Veterans Alliance has thrown their support behind Leal and others, in essence calling it a rite of passage for a new generation of Valley veterans.

“Look, we’re getting old. When we came back it was the World War II veterans who were organizing all the activities here, and it was the Vietnam veterans who took over,” Gallegos said. “We told them ‘we need your generation to start taking over the reins of some of our activities.

“I told them (Iraq War veterans) ‘man, if you take charge you’re going to have a lot of older veterans behind you,” Gallegos said.