From the Dayton Beach News Journal
by Ray Weiss
DAYTONA BEACH — The federal government is spending more money than ever for veterans’ medical and educational benefits, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told an opening-ceremony AMVETS national convention crowd of about 800 Wednesday.
“Lots of folks talk about American exceptionalism. The faces of American exceptionalism to me are of the men and women who serve, and have served, this nation in uniform, in peace and in war,” said Shinseki, the keynote speaker who served two combat tours in Vietnam and spent 38 years in the Army.
He said the VA budget has grown from $99.8 billion in 2009 to $140 billion being requested in 2013 to “correct” programs and policies of the past.
“We didn’t take care of business as we should have,” he said of the department’s history, pointing to Vietnam and Gulf War veterans whose presumed combat illnesses from materials such as Agent Orange only recently were deemed legitimate. “It’s been 45 and 20 years. It was time. It was the right thing to do.”
Shinseki spoke before the AMVETS 68th annual convention, which runs through Saturday at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort. As many as 2,000 of the group’s 180,000 national members are expected to attend the veteran service organization’s major annual event.
Other major speakers Wednesday were U.S. Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis and Florida VA Executive Director Mike Prendergast.
Shinseki told the mostly older group of veterans that numerous changes have occurred with the VA with outreach and accessibility of benefits for old and young veterans alike. He said a major emphasis has been placed on education and training for the troops returning from the Middle East in an attempt to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015.
“Three years ago an estimated 107,000 veterans were homeless in this rich and powerful country,” he said, maintaining it is about 60,000 this year. “The president was very clear. We won’t be satisfied until every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America.”
He said prevention is the key, and that the Department of Defense now is working directly with his department so the transition can be smoother between active duty and civilian life.
“The VA focus is keeping at-risk veterans from slipping. About 900,000 are in college and trade training,” he said. “But they must graduate. Anyone who flunks out in this economy is at a high risk of homelessness.” But Shinseki said men and women returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering even more profound injuries than in the past, including brain trauma and multiple amputations.
“Repeated deployments of this force have created issues that don’t show up until those later deployments,” he said. “More of them are also surviving catastrophic injuries because of improved body armor, better battlefield life-saving skills and strategic medical airlifts to be able to evacuate the seriously wounded from the front lines. Those higher survival rates mean more complex injuries.”
He said that within the last three years, 57 new community-based, out-patient clinics have opened, a fifth medical center specializing in multiple trauma and amputations opened in San Antonio, and four new VA hospitals are being built, including one in Orlando. Another recently opened in Las Vegas, the first in 17 years.
“With the planned draw-down of up to 1 million troops in the next five years, the number of new claims is going to grow,” Shinseki said.
Houston Delaney, 64, a Marine veteran from Gary, Ind., who served in Vietnam, receives a 60 percent medical disability from the VA. An AMVETS member three years, he said the convention offers him information on a vast array of veterans benefits and legislation, as well as the camaraderie of being around like-minded men and women.
“For me, it’s all about supporting the vets and learning about different things I didn’t know about,” he said.
For veterans, that can be on a federal, state or local level. Florida’s top administrator for veterans, Prendergast, an Army combat veteran, said his department is the “vital link” to those former military men and women in the state.
“AMVETS strongly shares these same sentiments and plays a key role in Florida by providing outstanding counsel, services and legislative advocacy,” Prendergast said. “This last legislative session was the most veteran friendly legislative session in the history of the state of Florida.”
Orlando’s $856 million VA Medical Center has encountered many construction delays, as the VA and the primary contractor have fought over the pace of the work. It was scheduled to open last October.
“From what I’ve heard, everything is back on track for next summer,” Prendergast said, adding the state isn’t overseeing the project. “I’m going tomorrow to check out the status of construction. It’s a critical facility to a large population. Right now, those veterans have to travel to other areas of the state, as far as Miami.”
Labor Secretary Solis said her department is involved in getting veterans placed in jobs. There now are federal tax credits for employers of $5,600 or more for hiring a returning veteran.
“The unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans is too high,” she said. “My job is to try to help work with you (AMVETS), Chambers of Commerce, employers, nonprofits, work with people who can hire up folks. And say, ‘You know what? They did their job for us, these veterans. Now let’s do (the right thing).’ It’s patriotism. It’s about giving back, and making sure that happens.”
Solis said the military does a good job training civilians for eight- to 10-weeks of military life. But she said the same effort needs to be made for the transition back to “civilian employment.” “When they come back, it’s difficult,” she said. “You need to do more than talk for three days. You need to have follow-up and monitoring, evaluation and assistance. Engage them face to face, not just on the telephone.” Also, she said 9/11 era veterans are receiving intensive services “right up front” for six months, moving to the front of the priority list. “Your buddy is going to help you go through whatever you need,” Solis said. “That’s something that’s new. I think that’s going to help us out especially with these young men and women who are coming back.”