By Karen Wall
Veterans returning from combat face a variety of challenges when they leave the military, from health issues to finding a job.
Every veteran should know there are services available to help them and a variety of benefits they are entitled to receive, veterans services personnel and local officials told a group of 100 veterans at the Lacey Elks Lodge on Saturday afternoon.
"We are making sure that our veterans are greeted with care and concern when they return from duty," Ocean County Freeholder Gerry P. Little said.
There are some enormous obstacles, however, for many veterans, said John Dorrity, director of the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau -- the primary obstacle being a backlog of claims of all types that is currently at 1.8 million nationwide and growing.
That backlog creates delays that prevent people from receiving the services they need -- services they have earned through their service to our country, Dorrity said.
That said, however, Dorrity encouraged those in attendance to continue to pursue benefits because they have earned them. That is especially true for the veterans who are just returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, who may not be aware of the services available to them, officials said.
Valerie Madore, employment services coordinator for the southern portions of New Jersey, said employment is among the top priorities for younger veterans, and there are a variety of education grants and assistance available.
Prime among those are the Chapter 33 benefits, which Madore referred to as "the new G.I. Bill for post-9/11 service."
"We will help you apply, we will help you figure out what you want to do now that your time in the service is complete," she said.
Dorrity, a veteran himself, said most of his time and effort is spent trying to get veterans' claims moved through the process, despite the backlog.
He has testified before Congress and spoken with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, he said, pressing for change and an improvement in the way things are handled.
"They referred to it as an inventory," Dorrity said, referring to officials from the Veterans Administration. "I said, "People are not an inventory. Their claims are a backlog.' "
A switch to computerized records is expected to help, said Rep. Jon Runyan, whose Congressional district includes Lacey, and who attended the symposium, sponsored by the Lacey Township Veterans Commission.
But with the impending influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the problems and delays will likely get worse before they get better, he said.
"Hopefully the move (to computerized records) will help them be able to figure out problems within the bureaucracy," Runyan said. "They will be able to tell whether people are doing their job consistently wrong."
Fixing the bureaucracy, however, will be a far greater challenge, because there's no clear chain of command within the Veterans Administration.
"How do you hold people accountable when you don't know who's in charge?" he said. The focus has got to be on the veterans who need the services, he said, and it needs to be on them soon.
"We're going to get more and more claims and we're still dealing with claims from Vietnam," Runyan said, noting his office helped settle a claim that had been lingering for 31 years.
Veterans are dying before their claims are settled, Dorrity said, and that's unacceptable. But he will continue fighting and continuing trying to ensure veterans get the services they need, he said.
"Whatever we can do for you, we will do for you," he said.
Veterans resources in Ocean County include:
VetWork -- provides transportation services. 609-971-7613
Ocean County Veterans Services Bureau: 732-929-2096
Veterans Administration Employment Coordinator Valerie Madore: 973-986-9545