County VA office needed, says state official

Gary B. Gray • May 22, 2012 at 9:29 PM

A Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs official recently visited Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and “strongly encouraged” him that a county VA department be opened.

Eldridge told the County Commission’s Budget Committee members last week that he was not instructed to form a county department. Not verbatim. Not directly. But he did say he came away with the impression the state department wanted this to be in place sometime soon.

Washington County is one of only six counties statewide that does not have a county office, and these six counties happen to already have a strong Veterans Affairs presence.

“I was strongly encouraged to create a county Veterans Affairs department that would employ one full-time person — a county veterans service officer — and possibly one part-time person,” he said. “They want Washington County to start this department, but there is no state funding for it.”

On April 11, TDVA Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder announced a new executive leadership team to head up the department. Wendell Cheek was named deputy commissioner at that time, and that is who dropped in on the county mayor.

“He was pretty serious,” Eldridge said. “But we’re probably looking at about $80,000 a year.”

The new department would require at least one service officer with adequate office space who would be equipped with all the necessary office equipment and supplies. This person also would be reimbursed for travel and other necessities, according to a handout listing the requirements.

Tennessee law regarding military affairs authorizes these services and calls for the officers’ compensation to be commensurate to compensation paid to government employees in “comparable positions.” However, state law does not require the creation of this position.

The officer would provide technical advice, help veterans get claims processed and coordinate and conduct veterans outreach programs within the region, according to field office requirements. He or she would need to be trained at the county’s expense and would work not less than 1,000 hours annually.

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home has been tending to the needs of veterans since 1903. It is the largest such facility in East Tennessee, serving more than 170,000 veterans living in a 41-county area of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina.

In addition to the main facility in Mountain Home, it also offers community-based outpatient clinics and rural outreach clinics in Southwest Virginia.

Besides health services, the local VA Medical Center offers help with employment opportunities and a wide network of volunteers, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups which are in place to make sure veterans get counseling if needed, avenues that help ensure they receive the proper benefits and other resources.

East Tennessee State University also has a Veterans Upward Bound program that helps veterans receive basic instruction in pre-college or GED courses to help prepare them for college, technical or vocational school enrollment, GED exam and career development.

All services, books, supplies and instruction are provided free to eligible veterans. The program is in its 32nd year of operation providing educational opportunities to veterans in upper East Tennessee

There also exists a number of clubs and organizations that assist veterans and their families in Johnson City and throughout Washington County.

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