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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

County Veterans Service Offices Swamped

We hear a lot about the influx of veterans seeking out health care from the VA; but, what about other organizations set up to provide assistance to our vets? How are they dealing with the crunch? Today's Minneapolis-St. Paul Pioneer Press tells us how things are going in our county veterans service offices -- both in Minnesota and in neighboring Wisconsin (and we can imagine the same can be seen across other states as well). A few stats, a few explanations, and a few stories in this informative piece.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the MSP Pioneer Press:

Artillery fire continues to reverberate for the former [Vietnam-era] Army specialist: [Dennis] Molick has tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, a common affliction of veterans. The condition prompted Molick to visit his local Veterans Service Office in Anoka County — one of several Twin Cities offices handling a burgeoning number of veteran requests for everything from health problems to burial arrangements to vocational help. "We're seeing record numbers of people coming in to access these types of things," said Duane Krueger, director of the Veterans Service Office in Anoka.

Since 1999, the number of client visits to Krueger's office has almost tripled, and the two-person staff saw 31 people on March 31, a one-day record. Late last month, Krueger asked for and received from the County Board the OK to hire another person. Other counties report similar increases. "There shouldn't be an office that isn't busy right now, especially in the metro area," because of the large population of veterans here, said Jon Larson of the Washington County Veterans Service Office. "We never get caught up here."

Provided and paid for by each individual Minnesota county, these Veterans Service Offices fulfill an important role in a local community.

[T]hey assist veterans and their survivors in applying for medical benefits, filing claims for service-related conditions, burials, home loans and education benefits. Neighboring Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties in Wisconsin also have veterans service offices. Most offices do not track their clients by age or war period. But directors from around the Twin Cities agree on several reasons for the increases.

The Iraq war is creating a new tide of veterans. Vietnam veterans are aging into their 60s, some with conditions related to war injuries or post-traumatic stress renewed by seeing Iraq coverage in the news. World War II and Korean War veterans are even older, and their deaths are leaving survivors with questions about government benefits. And rising health care costs, along with the tendency for employers to offer less insurance coverage, have prompted more veterans to consider treatment at a VA hospital.

In addition, the offices are seeing more veterans who are suffering the effects of Agent Orange exposure.

Anoka County has about 28,000 veterans, Krueger said. Last year, his office logged 3,559 visits from clients. In 2006, the office is on track to see 4,000.

In the light of this increasing need, it's obvious that more money and manpower will need to be devoted to these services; unfortunately, budgets are bursting on just about every level of government these days. Not all offices have the opportunity to hire another employee to meet the rising needs. Not all offices are having an easy time of even remaining open.

From the Quay County [NM] Sun:

Joe Valverde, a veteran of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, told [county] commissioners he was concerned about the scheduled July 1 closing of the veteran’s service office in Tucumcari. “We need all the help we can get and we need it locally,” Valverde said. If the office is closed, Valverde said Clovis is the next closest office. Between Quay, DeBaca and Guadalupe counties, the Tucumcari office serves more than 2,100 veterans -- 1,319 of them in Quay County.

A trip to Clovis isn’t easy for veterans, Valverde said, because of health problems and rising fuel prices. “I’m not primarily looking at myself,” Valverde said. “We have other veterans who do need help.”

The representative of the office, Albert Trujillo, said the cut would be made because the office doesn’t serve as many veterans as other offices around the state. However, Trujillo felt having the local office was the best scenario for veterans. “We have one-on-one contact,” Trujillo said. “They (other offices) have bigger workloads, but I don’t see that as a reason to close our office down.”

Commissioners said they would send letters of support to U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the House of Representatives’ Veterans Affairs Committee, along with Gov. Bill Richardson and state legislators Clint Harden and Brian K. Moore. Additionally, commissioners said they would do whatever else they could to help prevent the office’s closure [names linked to official contact page if you'd like to send a note, too].

A hat tip to all the hard-working people in our county veterans service offices all around the country -- you're doing important work for our society. Please read the entire piece (local office #s provided), and then join me in thanking the Pioneer Press for their coverage of this issue.

Track down your own state's veterans benefit services from this National Association of County Veteran Services page.

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