Home Front Battle

| November 9, 2010 | 0 Comments

Push on to aid ex-soldiers
By BILL O ’ BOYLE boboyle@timesleader.com

WILKES-BARRE – The veterans sat around a table to discuss their common cause – helping former service personnel in need.

The places they served chronicle history – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan – but they share something in common: they all dodged bullets and saved lives.

The seven veterans gathered Friday morning at the offices of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Multicare Alliance (NEPA-VMA) in the Courthouse Square Towers, River and North streets, and spoke with passion about what’s being done for veterans and what needs to be done.

“Veterans seem to be losing a lot of rights,” said Sam Greenberg, president of the NEPA-VMA and the Jewish War Vets and a former Fleet Marine who served as a combat medic in World War II. “Veterans hospitals are closing floors, making access to health care more difficult for veterans.”

Greenberg, of Kingston and now 83, was 17 years old when he entered the Marines.He said that now an average of 1,200 World War II vets die every day. He worries about the staggering statistic that shows one in every four veterans today is homeless.

“How can that be?’ he asks incredulously.

They spoke of post traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – and its prevalence today. The suffering is not new; it was known as shellshock following World War I, battle fatigue after World War II.

“It transcends all wars and all veterans,” Greenberg said.

The point made by the veterans is that help has always been needed and the demand is increasing.

“Less than 30 percent of veterans know what benefits they are entitled to,” said Richard Wren, volunteer director at the NEPA-VMA. “And the number is going up because we have so many on active duty.”

Volunteers at work

The NEPA-VMA office is an all-volunteer agency that is a free resource to help veterans find assistance they need. Veterans can go there and get the guidance they need to access the benefits and services that are available.

Right now, except for some generous donations, the office is without funding. They have applied for grants. They have asked for allocations. They have received nothing.

Wren said the Michael J. Cleary Foundation has generously helped fund the NEPA-VMA operation. At some point, the organization will need to receive funding to operate.

A three-year budget would be $173,000 if paid staff is included. There are recurring expenses like rent, phones, computers and supplies.

Currently there are more than 300 active cases at the NEPA-VMA – a number that is growing daily, and Wren and volunteer Karla Porter expect it to keep growing.

Porter said everyone has seen the television commercials that actively recruit young people to the military. “How many commercials do you see informing veterans on where to go for help?”

The veterans feel it’s time for the government to fund agencies like the NEPA-VMA so veterans can not only receive help, but that they can become aware of where to go for assistance.

“This organization has done so much for so many veterans,” said Sgt. J. P. Karpovich of the 109th Field Artillery. “Just think what we could do with some funding.”

“This is a central location for veterans to go,” said John Phillips, 81, of Dupont, a veteran of Korea and commander of the Dupont VFW Post 4909. “Veterans need to know where to go for help.”

There are service officers available at all American Legion, VFW and AMVETS posts, said John Ralston, 75, of Plains Township.

“But people don’t know enough to go there to inquire about benefits,” he said.

Comprehensive care

Wren said the NEPA-VMA represents the new direction for comprehensive care for returning veterans and for those who have served in previous wars who are still in need. It is a resource that bridges the gap between veterans’ programs and non-veterans’ programs – on the federal, state, county and private levels.

“We have to be a one-stop clearing house,” said Jerry Gurnari, 47, of Dupont, a legislative liaison with the AMVETS.

It’s not a new problem, the veterans said. It’s been going on for years. They said they have met with elected officials and they chuckled when they talked about how candidates always seek the support of veterans in their campaigns.

“And we have gone along,” Greenberg said. “But the game is about to change.”

The veterans said they are going to hold politicians accountable for the promises they make. They will use the NEPA-VMA newsletter to announce pledges made by candidates and office holders and they will follow up with status reports that will detail what each has done and what has not been done.

“We plan to get all of them together to meet with us,” Porter said. “We will drive the agenda; we will be sure that the voices of our veterans are heard.”

“The time for rhetoric is over,” Wren said. “We have to start to hold our elected officials accountable.”

Bob Alper, 78, of Kingston and a Korean War veteran, said veterans are loyal to their country. He said 19 percent of those who fought in Korea were World War II veterans. Porter said many of those even served in Vietnam as well.

Gurnari said he was brought up “the American way” – to serve your country and the government would in turn take care of you later in life.

“To think that an individual that served this country would now need a veteran’s service officer or an advocate to advise them when they apply for benefits they’ve earned is unbelievable,” Gurnari said. “But it’s due to the complexity of the system that is in place.”

What are veteran’s needs?

The NEPA-VMA’s goal is to cover the same 19-county area as the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center from their main headquarters. They have seen a large uptick in the number of referrals they are receiving from agencies as word spreads about their services. This also means there is a need for additional outreach, services and perhaps a second office – that all requires funding.

Porter said when veterans return home they need help in making the transition to civilian life and civilian employment. She said employers have become more reluctant to hire veterans who may be dealing with PTSD and other service-related issues.

“The preference once given veterans has largely gone away,” Porter said. “Except where mandated, veterans have a tough time getting hired. That effort needs to be stepped up.”

Ralston said many veterans are getting older and are not in need of hospitalization as much as they need long-term care.

Once an initial assessment is completed, Wren said referrals are made. These include referrals for help with education, employment, pharmacy, counseling, medical, drug/alcohol treatment, mental health assessments, discharge and discharge upgrades, military records, compensation and pension, social work services, legal services and housing assistance.

There are tens of thousands of veterans living in the region, Wren said, and more are returning from the Middle East.

“The need for services will be greater than ever,” he said.

There is no cost for the services provided by the NEPA-VMA. The veterans and staff are working tirelessly to keep the organization going.

“We’re still in the trenches,” Greenberg said.

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