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Vol. LXIV, No. 33
 
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
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Over 100 Central N.J. Veterans, Families, Discuss Issues in Telephone Forum

Ellen Gilbert

“When Linda Bean testified before Congress, she was told ‘if the vet comes to us, we’ll take care of his problems,’” said Congressman Rush Holt (D-12) in a recent telephone forum with over a hundred Central New Jersey veterans and their families.

“That’s not good enough,” Mr. Holt said of the response to Ms. Bean, whose son, Coleman, committed suicide after two tours of duty in Iraq. “It should not be up to a veteran to take the first step. We need to figure out how to get help to them.”

With the participation of officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Mr. Holt addressed veterans’ concerns about health care, the GI Bill, employment, and other issues.

“Our country was founded by citizen-soldiers and it is work that you have done that has kept us free. I’m certainly working every day to ensure that you get the health care, the education benefits, and the other things that are due to you. And they are due to you because of a national promise,” Mr. Holt said.

Other topics addressed at the forum included tracking overdue medals earned during World War II, treatment for exposure to Agent Orange during service in Vietnam, and the disproportionate number of unemployed GIs.

Mr. Holt expressed particular satisfaction that more attention is being paid to mental health issues. Earlier this year, the House passed an initiative supported by Mr. Holt to beef up the military’s suicide prevention efforts among members of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). The legislation was named in memory of Sergeant Bean, who was an East Brunswick resident. “Unlike their active duty counterparts or those normally assigned to existing Guard and Reserve units, members of the IRR and those designated as IMAs normally are only assigned to units upon mobilization,” Mr. Holt said. “In between deployments, they lack direct, easy access to the kinds of suicide prevention services and support structures available to active duty troops a deficiency my bill seeks to fix. Under the House-passed bill, someone from the Department of Defense would be required to check on reserves regularly and to ensure their needs are being met.”

Despite the fact that Mr. Bean received a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder after his first tour of duty, he was redeployed. A few months after he returned home and took his own life, the Veterans Administration (VA) called with his next deployment.

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has introduced companion legislation on the Senate side, but Mr. Holt is not making any presumptions about its passage in the near future. “I won’t make predictions about what the Senate will do, but just in case, as in so many other cases, if they don’t get around to passing this legislation, I’ve sent letters to Secretaries [Robert M.] Gates and [Eric K.] Shinseki asking that they administratively implement our proposal that they check in with these reservists, even if the law is not yet enacted by Congress. The problem of suicide is urgent.”

The House-passed funding bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs also included an amendment introduced by Mr. Holt, directing the Secretary of the VA to spend $20 million for suicide prevention outreach, both through direct advertising and on online social media like Facebook and Twitter.

The same funding bill provides $50.6 billion in advance for the following fiscal year. Mr. Holt reported that for some time he has heard from veterans and their doctors that the VA was running out of money months before the end of the fiscal year. “The bill would help ensure no shortfalls,” he said.

“I think I can help,” Mr. Holt told the Monroe Township resident whose husband was supposed to receive a Purple Heart after World War II. “This is one of the great pleasures of my job. In many cases, it is possible to reconstruct history through veterans’ military records. It would be my honor to carry the award up to Monroe and present it to your husband.”

Another caller expressed concern about veterans of the Navy and Coast Guard who served in Vietnam but did not “have their boots on the ground” because they were stationed on ships. “We sat at the mouth of the Mekong River and had to use distilled water for drinking and bathing,” said a caller who identified himself as William from East Brunswick. “God knows how much dioxin from Agent Orange was in it.”

Mr. Holt suggested that the recent appropriations bill passed by the house includes new eligibility rules for processing claims related to Agent Orange exposure, now citing it as a “presumptive disability” and not requiring proof of actual exposure. A representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs who was present corroborated Mr. Holt’s suggestion, adding that, “to the best of my knowledge, we have identified specific ships that were on duty in the area,” so proof of having served on one of those ships would strengthen a veteran’s claim.

“Unemployment among veterans is higher than among the cohort that has not served and that’s unacceptable,” said Mr. Holt in response to another call. “I’ve tried to bring attention to this issue through Hire a Veteran Week and other education and training opportunities. We need to make clear to employers that veterans should be their first choice as employees: they are mature, well-trained, well-travelled, and able to take responsibility and initiative beyond what people who haven’t served might have.”

Participants whose questions were not addressed during the hour-long session were encouraged to leave voice messages for Mr. Holt at 1-87-RUSHHOLT or (609) 750-9365. A recording of the complete teleforum can be accessed at http://holt.house.gov/images/stories/holtru16.wav.

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