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— With the nation at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, making sure the troops are properly equipped and supported is an important part of the job of a federal lawmaker.

But veterans’ needs don’t stop when they return from the war zones.

U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats; and U.S. Rep. John Boozman, a Republican, said they want to do all they can to help veterans any way they can.

A wide range of aid is available, the legislators said.

“We get a lot of contacts from people. We help a lot of people, and I’m glad we’re able to do it,” said Pryor, who pointed out that more than 90 percent of returning vets who contact his office need only contact information. But those who need more than that get it, if at all possible.

Some people have had life-changing injuries during their service, Pryor pointed out.

The Veterans Administration does what it can to deal with wounds, but other programs for disabled vets can help, Pryor said.

“For many of them, it’s a time for a new start where they can go get better education opportunities,” Pryor said. “There are specific programs in which we try to find jobs for them. In Little Rock recently, they had a job fair at War Memorial. I don’t know how many attended, but my understanding is the numbers were really big, and everybody involved - the men and women in uniform and the employers - (said) it was very successful.”

Pryor lauded the National Guard and the active-duty military and reserves for doing well in taking care of those who need it. On the other hand, at least sometimes, former employers - try as they might - simply can’t provide the jobs returnees would like these days, Pryor said.

“These guardsmen and guardswomen can be called away for more than a year at a time,” Pryor said. “We have employers in Arkansas who are very understanding and who work with them and work with the military on that. But the reality is it causes a hardship on the employer, too. So not all can be as accommodating as they would otherwise in this tough economy. We just have to be honest about it: There are some rough edges on that. … It just doesn’t always work out.”

Jobs are a key concern of many returnees, as are education and health issues, Boozman said.

“I think the most important thing, especially in this economy, is making sure they have jobs - our guardsmen - (and) when they come back, making sure they’re employed,” Boozman said. “Those that want to go back to school, giving them the educational opportunities they need. And last, the health-care aspect - making sure all of their needs are being met, whatever they are.”

Help for people with service-related disabilities as well as counseling are intended to be provided where requested or needed, Boozman said.

“I think that myself, and I know our two senators and the governor are committed to helping any way we can,” Boozman said.

“And also I know myself and our two senators, as we run across problems, are committed to trying legislatively to trying to provide answers. I met with the head of the VA just last week, and also some people in charge of implementing the GI Bill. We’re having some bottlenecks. It’s taking them time to get the payments. So we’re looking at what kind of legislation we need to introduce very quickly so we can fix some of the areas we’re having problems with, so the GIs can get their payments on a much more prompt basis.

“I think Congress, and I think the military, are doing a very good job with people returning from war. But it’s still not good enough. We’re trying to identify areas we need to do a better job in, as situations arise.”

Also, a Yellow Ribbon Task Force set up by Gov. Mike Beebe is helping people in communities, schools and other entities improve their outreach to vets, the congressman said.

Like Boozman, Lincoln found the government response inadequate in some areas.

She’s pushing for members of the Guard and Reserve to get the medical review they need and have it followed with appropriate treatment, Lincoln said.

“What we’re fighting for is to ensure they get periodic health assessments for members of the Guard and Reserve, and that those assessments are followed up by the government with treatment to correct any of the medical or dental readiness deficienciesdiscovered at those screenings,” Lincoln said.

The National Guard and Reserve have a different kind of deployment, giving up the comforts of their home and community to help bring security and stability to people they’ve never met, and when they return, they lack the continuity and support of a military base, Lincoln said.

“That’s why so many of the bills I’ve introduced are certainly focused on all military personnel, but particularly on the Guard and Reserve,” Lincoln said. “They have needs that are more difficult to meet because they’re not coming back to a centralized base where they could get those needs met, whether it’s physical-health needs or mental-health needs.”

For members of the Guard or Reserve living in rural areas, just getting the services they need can be a challenge, and many share other difficulties, some of which she’s had a hand in addressing, Lincoln said.

“I’ve heard from a lot of my Guard and Reserve and their families on everything from what it costs them to get to their drills - and what they’re not reimbursed - to what they’re not reimbursed to get to the VA, to get their critical health care,” Lincoln said.

The Travel Reimbursement for Inactive Duty Training Personnel Act reimburses members of the Selective Reserve for inactive Duty Training Drills, reimbursing those expenses in excess of 50 miles - including mileage, meals and lodging - at the standard government rate, she said.

Also, Congress approved reimbursement to and from the VA for its services, Lincoln said.

Lawmakers got the VA to increase mileage reimbursement for veterans traveling to the VA, from 28.5 cents per mile to 41.5 cents per mile, and she’s a co-sponsor of a bill to lock in that 41.5-cent rate, the senator said.

She is also working to create a VA Office of Rural Health, to allow veterans living in rural areas to get more consistent care, Lincoln said.

Eight community-based outpatient clinics have been opened in rural areas to help get some care to veterans who live in those areas, she said.

To help children going to school and not living on a base who have one or more parents deployed, she has a bill to improve counseling in schools, particularly for children of deployed guardsmen and guardswomen and reserves, Lincoln said.

“They don’t have the services on the base that are there to support and counsel the kids. Neighbors are great, and communities are great to support them, but making sure they’ve got somebody to turn to is really critical, too,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln also called for more investment in mental-heath care, citing post traumatic stress disorder. For returning vets, more frequent mental-health assessments, before and upon their return from combat, are a necessity, she said.

Lincoln also got more funds for the VA to hire additional claims processors, and to invest in training and technology, she said.

But perhaps the most critical need for many returning vets is adequate preparation to compete in the tough job market, Lincoln said.

“We’ve worked to ensure, through the GI Bill, the ability of (guardsmen) and reservists to accrue their education benefits with successive activations, so they would receive a benefit more reflective of the service they’ve given,” Lincoln said.

In the past, a person deployed for 17 months, then redeployed for 16 months, could only count 17 months toward their educational benefits, she said.

“What we did was ensure that they could accrue those educational benefits for the entire time they’re deployed,” Lincoln said.

She wants to make sure Montgomery GI Benefit rates for members of the Selected Reserve will keep pace with increased service. Active duty members’ benefits are indexed, rising as costs rise, but for guardsmen and reservists, that’s not the case yet, Lincoln said.

Lawmakers and others need to remember the eight years of sacrifices of returning and still-serving veterans, she said.

“Without a doubt, it’s so critical for all of us to remember their unbelievable sacrifice. We all have to remain committed to providing them with the equipment they need and to make every effort to care for them when they are deployed, but when they come home as well. And we’ve got to honor the benefits they’ve earned. These are benefits they’ve earned and they deserve,” Lincoln said.

Some in the 39th Infantry Brigade, Arkansas’ largest National Guard unit, have served two or three tours of duty, and the 39th has supported the mobilization of more than 11,500 troops since Sept. 11, 2001, and 25 have died, she pointed out.

“That leaves our state among the highest per capita number of Army National Guard fatalities,” Lincoln said

News, Pages 10 on 10/21/2009

Print Headline: Several programs available for returning veterans

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