Roughly 30 people gathered at the Armed Forces Reserve Center on Wednesday morning to hear from the state’s veterans affairs department and various veterans organizations.
The town hall takeaways: Clark County veterans are asking for more support from the state and federal government while the government scrambles to fill positions and improve access through shortened wait times and enhanced technology.
“I want these town hall meetings to be an opportunity where we’re able to listen to the community and have them be candid about the information that they have so that we as an organization can get better at what we do,” David Puente Jr., newly appointed director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, said on the first day of his new position.
The event focused on veterans’ resources ranging from the city to federal levels, including presentations on the VA Family Caregiver Assistance Program; the PACT Act, which expands health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxins and burn pits in service; and general benefits and disability claims resources.
More help needed
Some audience members aired their grievances about personal experiences with long wait times, the lack of state veterans’ resources in Clark County and the challenges of accessing veterans service organizations in the area.
First forum for women veterans takes place
Prior to the town hall, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs’ Women Advisory Committee hosted a forum to hear concerns from women veterans. More than two dozen female veterans attended, according to Shellie Willis, chair of the committee.
“We were able to have a more intimate and intentional conversation in a safe space, to really hear from them, what their needs are, and gather the information because our responsibility as a committee is to ensure that our women veterans have equitable access to their benefits to health care,” Willis said.
Women in the military face unique challenges, both during their service and beyond. Willis said that since the formation of the committee, she has seen more women veterans at events such as the town hall. The committee is planning future events for women veterans.
“We don’t have a clue to how the system works,” said one individual at the town hall. “There’s really just a big disconnect here. It’s not the fault of any one individual. I think everyone here is here to serve the veterans, but get off your podium, VA or state VA, and start educating us so we can speak on our own behalf.”
The man said he has been waiting for five months to hear back on a benefits claim.
Across the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs is facing a worker shortage.
For the PACT Act alone, signed by President Joe Biden in August, the federal veterans department hopes to hire 1,900 new employees by June, as 170,000 claims sit untouched in a nationwide backlog, according to the Federal News Network.
Claims experts are just one hiring priority for the state veterans affairs department, which operates four veterans care homes. Offering 24-hour nursing care and medical attention, these facilities and other short-staffed clinics are focused on hiring new health care professionals.
“In the industry, we’re in need of CNAs that are the backbone, that provide the direct care for our veterans and families and Gold Star family members that are residing in our four state homes,” Puente said. “We’re also going to be focusing on recruiting nurses and LPNs.”
Federal grants bring new veterans resources
With veterans medical centers spread sparsely throughout the state, rural veterans often have difficulties quickly accessing VA employees regarding health care, benefits or other resources. One caregiver at the town hall expressed her disapproval of Clark County and Washington veterans officials for not being more physically accessible.
To combat this, the state veterans department is working with the Washington State Department of Commerce to provide internet service, laptops and cellphones to veterans using a $1.3 million federal grant, which will help veterans more easily find providers and book appointments.
Jeff Powell, program manager for this Digital Navigator Program, said at the town hall that the state is currently creating the application for this program, which it hopes to roll out in the next month and advertise in rural areas.
“Part of this program is to educate people, so we’re not just going to hand you these two cool things and let you walk off into the ether,” Powell said. “We actually have a mandate to spend eight hours of training with every person that gets it.”
Other Washington veterans resources mentioned at the town hall included the LGBTQIA+ veterans outreach coordinator, a position created in 2021, and counseling and mental health/PTSD services available to all veterans.
Rafael Lozano, outreach and community partnerships coordinator at the Washington State Veterans Affairs department, said the state works with 41 counselors to provide mental health services to veterans. He said the department is updating application processes and ramping up its suicide-prevention program.
“I thought it went well today. I thought that we had some people who actually spoke their minds, and it was good to get all of those questions and those concerns out in the open,” Judy Russell, CEO of the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, said following the town hall. “I wish we would see more WDVA presence here in Vancouver, but I’m sure that’s going to happen with the new director.”
Puente said the Governor’s Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee is planning to hold several veteran town halls in Washington this year. The next will take place in Yakima in May.