By: Joel Gilleland, Staff Reporter | Photos By: Joel Gilleland
Veterans who attend CNM and UNM were invited to a round table discussion with United States Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric K. Shinseki to discuss concerns and obstacles in using veteran benefits.
The May 24 discussion was followed by a press conference during which Shinseki discussed those concerns and his proposed VA budget plans for 2013.
“The discussion came to a question and answer session, and basically he wanted to know if there were any problems that people were having with their benefits, said student Ian B. Scott, who also works in the financial aid department as a VA Tech III.
Scott said that he was only able to ask one question which was about student veteran work-study pay. He said that he asked about veteran work-study paperwork not getting processed in a timely manner and checks coming late. Secretary Shinskei was very upset that this was happening, said Scott.
“He went off the handle and said ‘That is unacceptable.’ He started holding people accountable and he told one guy, ‘I’ll be in D.C. tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. and I expect an email with an answer by the time I get there,’ ” said Scott.
Shinseki said that each time he meets with student veterans he learns something new.
Veteran success is a top priority for both he and the Obama administration, said Shinseki.
“In order to assist in assuring that they have a great day out there crossing that graduation stage we’ve established a VetSuccess on-campus office site at each of these campuses to provide student veterans a direct link to VA services,” said Shinseki.
CNM is one of only 20 colleges nationwide that has a VetSuccess center on campus, said Brad Moore, director of CNM relations.
In the 2011 fall term, there were 994 student veterans enrolled at CNM, said Moore.
The VetSuccess center will have a full-time counselor from the Albuquerque Regional Office starting June 4. All veterans, members of active duty and military dependents are eligible to receive services from the center, said Moore.
During the press conference the secretary acknowledged the difficulties that many veterans face in finding work after their service is completed. He said he had strong beliefs in hiring veterans.
“My message to employers who are looking to hire: Hire veterans, you won’t be sorry. They are a tremendous addition to your workforce,” said Shinseki.
He said that during the last several months he has been testifying before congress to defend President Obama’s 2013 budget for the VA. This is the fourth budget he has defended in his time as secretary.
When he began his term as secretary he inherited a budget of $99.8 million. His most recent defense of President Obama’s requested 2013 budget is worth $140.3 million, he said.
“The president understands our immense obligation to the men and women who wear and have worn the uniforms of our nation. His commitment and his values are clearly reflected in what we’re provided as VA veterans,” said Shinseki.
He plans to eliminate the most common issues first, such as claims backlog and veteran homelessness. Vietnam veterans, including those with Agent Orange claims are being moved to the head of the line because the problems are so longstanding. He plans to open more VA clinics nationwide, he said.
“Just last week here, the VA opened the doors to a new clinic in Rio Rancho which brings the total of community based outpatient clinics in New Mexico to 15,” said Shinseki.
He said his commitment to America and its veterans is that the VA must and will do better at reaching out to American veterans.
His administration has also recently granted benefits to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said the secretary.
A number of cities, including Albuquerque, have seen a growing conflict between veterans suffering from PTSD and law enforcement. The secretary said that he and his council would like to work with local law enforcement to address these issues.
“I think that it can be difficult because we don’t wear a badge that says, ‘Hey we’re a veteran.’ At times people have an image of a veteran that’s someone on the street with a little sign that says ‘I’m a veteran.’ People don’t realize that more and more veterans are across all age spans and just because we are civilians now doesn’t mean we aren’t active participants in our environment,” said Michelle Racicot, UNM Master of Science in Nursing recipient and 13 year army veteran.
Racicot is pleased that the government is recognizing these issues and establishing programs like the VetSuccess Center, she said.