While no one can deny that we’re living in a time of uncertainty – a lot of people would call it anxiety – on how our nation’s and our state’s economic futures will play out, some things remain constant. West Virginians have always been patriotic. And I fully believe that our young people will continue choosing to serve in our armed forces.
I’m especially thankful to be living in a state that understands military service. I’m also thankful that the governor of my state and the people who live here understand the incredible sacrifices that veterans have made on their behalves. Through world wars, Korea, the tense Vietnam era, two separate wars fought mainly in the Middle East, and in years of relative peace, West Virginians have served. They’ve either entered combat or been ready to do so.
I have the high honor to serve as cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance. My job is to serve the veterans of our state, a group of about 175,000 people that range in age from 100-year-old Millard Dennison, a resident at the West Virginia Veterans Nursing Facility in Clarksburg, to the youngest men and women who served the U.S. during the War on Terror.
We owe veterans, young and old, our gratitude. And we owe them our assistance. They have taken care of us. Now we must help take care of them.
Let me change that just a little. We should continue taking care of our veterans.
This is a legitimate concern right now for veterans and their families and for the Department of Veterans Assistance. Like other West Virginians, we see the crisis. We see the half-million budget hole. We see the bond rating being lowered. And we certainly hear some legislators insisting that we should keep slashing State-provided services instead of raising any taxes.
I can only speak for one department: Veterans Assistance. But I promise you that we’re trying not to waste any money at any time. In fact, during the past two fiscal cycles, we’ve already been cut 12 percent.
I would like offer a snapshot into why cutting veterans services is not a good idea. Our department operates 17 field and claims OFFICES, and the service officers who work in these offices also perform “itinerant” work in more than 20 other communities. These officers and their assistants help West Virginia’s veterans file claims or appeals to claims that might have been denied. These claims might involve cash awards for disabilities, medical coverage, education grants, or any number of other benefits that veterans earned while serving in the armed forces.
The awards that our veterans received last year totaled $1.4 billion. Again, the total was $1.4 billion – with a “B.” Compared to the full department budget of roughly $10.4 million the State of West Virginia spends on the Department of Veterans Assistance, we’re getting a lot of return for the investment.
Not to overstate matters, that comes to more than $900 in return for every one dollar spent.
Within its $10.4 million budget, the Department of Veterans Assistance also manages a state-of-the-art 120-bed veterans nursing home in Clarksburg, an excellent shelter in Barboursville, and a pristine 354-acre cemetery in Dunbar.
Veterans Assistance also manages other critical programs. Some have been going on for years, such as a transportation initiative that offers veterans rides to medical appointments and a re-education program that gives a stipend to veterans seeking either college degrees or certifications in specialized work fields. The department also manages a suicide-prevention effort known as Mountain State 22, aimed at finding and helping at-risk veterans, and a Veterans to Agriculture program that seeks to offer both jobs and rehabilitation to former service members.
The point is that we want to continue taking care of our veterans.
Governor Jim Justice has introduced a budget plan that will, if adopted, continue to fund the Department of Veterans Assistance’s efforts to take care of our men and women who served in the military. We’re not looking for more money, although we could certainly use it. We’re looking to maintain.
I’ll say again that I can only speak for myself and the Department of Veterans Assistance, but I think it’s safe to say that every cabinet secretary in West Virginia understands the critical nature of our state’s economy. We know we need to cut waste. We know we need to monitor spending. We’re in crisis, and our survival path at the moment is to live on necessities.
At the same time, Governor Justice is offering a plan that can pull our state through the dark times. It is well-thought-out. It offers jobs. It fixes roads. It prepares for the short- and the long-term. The governor’s plan brings in money and keeps West Virginians working. It is a good plan, even though implementing it will require discipline and some sacrifices on our parts.
I’m especially grateful that Governor Justice’s plan spares our veterans from sacrificing again. It states that providing benefits, medical care, re-education and voices of hope to at-risk veterans will be considered one of our necessities.
Cabinet Secretary, WV Dept. of Veterans Assistance