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ISTSS rarely presents an award to an incumbent politician, but because of his extraordinary record of achievement in the field of traumatic stress studies, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, received the 2003 Public Advocacy Award, given for outstanding and fundamental contributions to advancing social understanding of trauma.

Harkin has been an advocate of traumatic stress studies since the late 1960s. He has a longtime record of public service and advocacy on behalf of veterans, the disabled and the mentally ill, with extraordinary leadership on behalf of survivors of trauma.

In 1969, as a staff member accompanying a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, Harkin revealed to the world the inhuman conditions inside a South Vietnamese prison camp. As a result of his photographs and detailed account of the infamous “tiger cages,” hundreds of tortured political prisoners were released.

From his position on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds veteran programs, Harkin has worked to increase funding and quality care at U.S. VA hospitals. Aware that many VA hospitals have budgets too small for the needs of America’s veterans, he has fought consistently for legislation to ensure that veterans get proper health care, financial support and the recognition they have earned, including access to appropriate treatment for combat-related PTSD.

For many years, Harkin has been a champion for people with disabilities and has been a leader on disability policy. Harkin was co-author of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects the civil rights of more than 57 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities. In addition, Harkin has written a number of other laws to increase the independence of Americans with disabilities. He helped write legislation reforming education for children with disabilities, with a special emphasis on early intervention. This legislation has paved the way for recent congressional mandates expanding treatment and services for traumatized children in the United States.

Harkin has shown extraordinary leadership in support of trauma services, particularly on behalf of children who are exposed to abuse, neglect, violence, war, terrorism and other forms of trauma. He supports doubling the NIH research budget, with a special interest in mental health, cancer and women’s health, and he is an advocate on behalf of fair insurance coverage for those with mental illness. As co-chair of the Senate Rural Health Caucus, Harkin has successfully pushed legislation to bring health professionals to small towns and rural areas.

Harkin’s humanitarian outreach is apparent in the many public services he has advocated. In fact, it was a previous commitment to meet with a group of people who work for peace in the world that kept him from attending the ISTSS Awards Ceremony in November. Instead of a personal acceptance speech, a special video prepared by the senator’s office was presented to the audience.

More than any specific achievement, Sen. Harkin’s enduring spirit and commitment in the face of difficult challenges singled him out as an outstanding recipient of the 2003 ISTSS Public Advocacy Award. Through his many efforts, there is a greater understanding of trauma and its effects on those who face extraordinary challenges in all areas of life.