Speaker: On 17 August, BG (PA) Michael Gould, the Deputy Adjutant General for Veterans Affairs in the Commonwealth, spoke to the council. He explained that most states have a Secretary of Veterans Affairs but in this state the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has the responsibility. He is one of three deputies and serves at the pleasure of the Governor, though he sees his responsibility is in serving first the veterans.
His Office of Veterans Affairs is primarily consumed with the operation of six state veterans homes, requiring some 1800 employees. Its other functional responsibilities, in comparison, are relatively small. For example, the Office of Veterans Affairs has three small field offices of veterans service officers located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Ft. Indiantown Gap which file VA claims on behalf of veterans and work in confederation with the County Directors of Veterans Affairs.
This does not mean he is not busy. He has an open door policy for any veteran and has traveled approximately 63,000 miles on veterans business in the last year.
General Gould pointed out that his office manages six benefits programs, such as a paralyzed veteran pension and an emergency assistance fund, to the tune of $1 million but these touch only 1 to 2 per cent of the state’s veterans and as constituted are mostly redundant, considering the federal programs available for the same purposes.
He believes changes are necessary in his office and it must review existing programs for “bang for the buck.” He has developed a list of eight subject matter areas he would like to address, such as rural outreach, criminal justice initiatives, and women programs, but did not elaborate except on the following two which will be his focus for this year:
1) He considers employment of returning veterans a high priority. He believes it can solve a lot of issues. In the past, one practically had a job waiting upon discharge. This is not necessarily the case any longer. Good jobs are hard to find and too little is being done to help service members reintegrate into the civilian sector in the present job market. More must be done.
For example, emphasis will be placed on hiring veterans for positions in state veterans homes. Currently, only 6 to 20% by home are veterans. [Most if not all of these are civil service positions and veterans should have preference but the state poorly enforces veterans preference.] The Governor needs to send a welcome letter to every returning veteran [as does the federal Secretary of the VA) which would include a help checklist. He talked of the possibility of veterans hiring fairs and finding veterans friendly employers and connecting veterans to them. For example, Hershey School is looking for veterans families but how are they to know of their availability. In general, “… we have to figure out how to give them a shot to be first through the door.”
2) He then went on to talk at length about creating a state veterans fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, as probably the most significant change in support for commonwealth veterans. It would give him the ability to actually assist veterans and support nonprofits doing work for veterans. Kansas used its fund to purchase outreach vans. Some of the current, antiquated programs might be done away with to support this concept and their funds used as seed money. For example, the current Emergency Assistance Fund is practically useless and Warren County Director of Veterans Affairs has had to take action itself in creating a fund that actually helps. He cited what Florida has done and how it has signed up 1600 businesses to support it. How our citizens would donate in lieu of flowers and “in the name of” a deceased veteran. And he cannot understand why all vehicle license money for veterans’ license plates goes to PennDOT. Other possibilities exist for fund raising: lottery days. Perhaps $8 to $12 million could be produced in the first year, significantly more in funding that is currently occurring. Otherwise, in this budget climate, he is stuck with a “You want $5? Show me where you will cut $5 from another program” institutional attitude.
The Deputy Adjutant General also talked about the recent VA “wheel chair” games in Pittsburgh and how disabled veterans in like circumstances mentored wheel chair bound children on Kids Day and changed attitudes about their future prospects, something perhaps only veterans could do.
Finally, he spoke briefly on the subject of veterans diversion courts which he believes ought to be entitled “Veterans Treatment Courts.” He prefers this term because it “treats, changes, and employs” veterans, 90% of whom are addicted and have given up hope. Five counties have started programs to date and there is the need to pair mentors by experiences and to enlighten them on their benefits.
Scholarship Program: The following awardees were acknowledged by JoAnn Van Billiard, committee member, at the meeting: Tom Ambrosia, Alex Gomez III, Christopher Knordravy, Paiege Mast, Liam Morrissey, Rosemary Perez, Earl Tallow, Allison Uhler, and John Visco III. Of the nine awardees, one was a GWOT veteran, seven were children of veterans, four will be enrolled in ROTC, and three were already college students. All but one are attending colleges within the near vicinity of the Lehigh Valley.
Operation JOVE: Dave Newton is reforming his team with some new members and we are looking to restart our “job seeking training” program in the next two months – possibly as early as September.
The 9 modules of training are superb and the training was excellent last time. The problem has been the marketing and advertising of the program – getting to the customer. Dave and his group are really bearing down on that for this cycle and we have come up with new ideas. Building alliances with businesses for job placement opportunities in a concrete way is our second concern.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing: The third PHWFF event of the year will be held on Saturday October 8, 2011 in Allentown on the Little Lehigh Creek. The exact location will be determined shortly. Flooding has been affecting decisions. They need an all-weather location with easy stream access. The rain date is Sunday October 9th.
Homelessness: Meeting with the Infrastructure Committee of the Allentown Commission to End Chronic Homelessness to discuss housing on 31 August. We have been lately participating on the steering committee. On 14 September we will be attending the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center CHALENG partnership meeting.
Veterans Sanctuary: Veterans Sanctuary, which has been operational about a month, now has at least five clients. Judith’s Reading Room is about to fill out their new library.
Military Support: We’ll have our first venture into the book publishing world completed soon. The long awaited “family PTSD Booklet” that we have developed with an author is now under review by that author. In the next two weeks, the final should be submitted to the printers. The final draft has been submitted.
Dick Moore is looking into the next Military Family event we will sponsor. We’re looking towards the Spring.
We eagerly await the start of the “Supporting the Homefront” family, psycho-educational program operated by Treatment Trends, which we are sponsoring. It is scheduled to begin in September.
HOCVA: The CEO of Lehigh Valley Hospital Network will be talking to us in October here at the Council on the “Downstream Health Effects of War.” We will be picking up a program chair for it, as we think there is a greater need to press VA-Community partnerships. One area of interest is physician education on veterans and their problems. This is particularly important in Reserve communities. The VA has not been out in front in this area. Perhaps the current leader is the Department of Army has just begun an initiative.
VA Vet Center: No report. Representative Dent has made no progress. Scranton Vet Center has made no effort to expand into the Lehigh Valley with additional outstations.
Local Fundraising: Ashly Moyer 5K Race for Freedom is scheduled for 3 September. Have your organization form a team and participate. For more information, go to www.5kraceforfreedom.org. Both VVA 415 and VFW 9264 recently donated $100 as sponsors.
Veterans Diversion Courts: We hear but have seen nothing official that a combined House VAEP-Judiciary Committee is going to conduct a public hearing on veteran’s diversions courts on 7 September.
Governmental Affairs: We are trying to find out when our SDVA bill will be introduced in the Senate. Rep. Barrar, the Chair of the House VAEP, will speak to us in September at the Council Meeting.
The Pennsylvania War Veterans Council will resume its meetings in September as will the State Veterans Commission. We’re hoping to seek a more active body this year.
Budget Deficit May Have Impact on Us Down the Road.
Already the next military pay raise in 2012 is at stake. This subject is no longer off the table. They would now join retirees and Social Security recipients who have not had one in the last two years.
TRICARE fees are at stake also. After all, TRICARE premiums have been frozen for about 15 years now [and deductibles in the case of TRICARE Standard]. Point has been made federal workers pay $5,000 a year for theirs, military $460. MOAA and others support modest increases and they have significant influence on this issue.
It may affect VA operations as its VHA operations are considered discretionary funding. They may face a 6% reduction. However, Veterans Affairs Department pension and disability compensation programs are fenced off from cuts or sequestration (another possibility) and assurances have been made, but the DAV points out this does not address whether the Post-9/11GI Bill would be safe from cuts.
The Defense Review Board “Modernizing Military Retirement Task Force” is to officially report sometime in August. It is again being discussed that retirement pension be changed from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan (a 401k knockoff?).
DoD Physical Disability Board of Review is Reviewing Medical Retirement Ratings: We have reported on the disability rating problems of returning veterans discharged by the services before.
Roughly 70,000 veterans rated at less than 30% disability and given a medical separation between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2009 now have the chance to get their separations reviewed and possibly upgraded to a “medical retirement” status if they apply. To be eligible veterans must have been medically separated between the dates noted above with a combined disability rating of 20 percent or less, and originally not found eligible for retirement. There is no deadline to apply and next of kin can also apply. While upgrade is not guaranteed, there is no risk of veterans losing their existing benefits either. As of April 2011, more than half of the applicants have been upgraded.
For some the important aspect is not the monetary remuneration, but access to TRICARE healthcare and other DoD benefits.
VA Creates Office of Economic Opportunity: The Department of Veterans Affairs has now created an Office of Economic Opportunity. The education, home loan guarantee, vocational rehabilitation programs are now to be under one roof. It is a positive step forward if one thinks a more coordinated, purposeful approach to the transitioning or “civilianizing” of returning veterans leaving the service is needed at federal and state levels. We hope this is one of the new office’s objectives.
VA Launches New Prevention Initiative to Serve 22,000 Veteran Families at Risk of Homelessness: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced on 21 July he award of nearly $60 million in homeless prevention grants that will serve approximately 22,000 homeless and at-risk Veteran families as part of the new Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. Some 85 nonprofits in 40 states (only two in Pennsylvania and seemingly widely announced in our area) benefitted. PA recipients were Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E. and Wilkes-Barre Commission on Economic Opportunity.
Widely announced or not for grant submissions from our Lehigh Valley, what is new about this program is its preventive aspect. It allows for more partnerships than the Homeless Grant and Per Diem program conditions allow.
This program provides supportive services include outreach, case management, assistance in obtaining VA benefits, and assistance in obtaining and coordinating other public benefits. Grantees will also have the ability to make time-limited temporary financial assistance payments on behalf of Veterans for purposes such as rent payments, utility payments, security deposits and moving costs.
17 August 2011