Local Vets Meet with Susan Allen
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Sep 19, 2012, 12:44
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Air Force veteran Al Pianalto talks to Susan Allen about issues with the Veterans Administration while Navy veteran Bob Shrader and Army veteran Bill Flanagan listen during a Monday afternoon roundtable.
After doing battle for the nation, United States military veterans return from overseas to battle a number of issues at home, including an inefficient Veterans Administration, shifting health care costs and high unemployment. On Monday, a group of local veterans met with the wife of a man they hope will address those issues if he is elected to the U.S. Senate in November.
Susan Allen joined in a round table discussion with eight veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, to hear about the issues that are important to them and campaign for her husband, former Governor George Allen, who has made veterans issues a significant part of his platform.
“My biggest hope is that at the end of the day, I can give George a long list of things that people on the trail are saying they would like for him to do, or not do, were he given the opportunity to serve on the U.S. Senate,” Allen told the group at the Colonial Heights Public Library.
Problems with the Veterans Administration were at the top of the long list from the veterans at Monday’s meeting.
“That organization is so bureaucratic and it refuses to come into the modern age,” said Al Pianalto, a retired Air Force Col. who serves as the veterans and military action officer for state Del. Kirk Cox, R-66th.
Pianalto himself has struggled with lengthy wait times and inefficient record keeping while seeking care from the VA and said the veterans cases he works for Cox all involve problems with the VA, which, he said, refuses to take electronic records. As more young veterans return from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the situation is only deteriorating, Pianalto said.
“That’s the problem with the cases I handle,” he said. “I’m working three of them right now, in the last three weeks, same issues. Guys are waiting and waiting and waiting.”
One 87-year-old veteran he is working with has been waiting four years for the VA to make a determination on his application for disability.
“They’re waiting for him to die,” Pianalto said. “It’s the bureaucrats inside that have their own priorities...That’s the agency that needs to be shaken up, turned around and made more customer oriented.”
For the veterans at the table, health care concerns expanded beyond issues with the VA to include changing costs of TRICARE, the Department of Defense health insurance plan.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Susan Allen listened to the concerns of local veterans who served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines.
“Health care is the big complaint that you hear from everyone,” said Army Veteran and West Point graduate Rick Oertel.
Oertel said that military members were promised free healthcare for life, a claim that has been argued in national discussions and court cases since the early 2000s, but are not receiving it.
“They keep breaking promise after promise after promise,” he said.
As part of his campaign, George Allen has released what he calls the “Compact with Veterans,” a set of promises that includes shrinking the backlog of VA claims and improving care for service members. Susan Allen told the local veterans her husband would keep his promises.
“George’s worry about this is that we’ve made a promise to our veterans, and how do you tell the next generation of willing soldiers that you’re going to take care of them when they see the other folks having their promised reneged upon?” Susan Allen said. “That, for George, is just a core value thing. You make a promise, you keep a promise. It is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government.”
A health care topic of local concern was the fact that Fort Lee’s Kenner Army Health Clinic has not been restored to hospital status, even after the post grew under Base Realignment and Closure process.
High unemployment amongst veterans was another concern for the group. According to a report released earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate amongst male veterans, ages 18 to 24, was 29.1 percent in 2011, well above the national average.
“The unemployment rate for veterans is terrible,” said Bill Flanagan, an Army veteran who is now a legislative assistant for Del. Cox.
Allen is amongst the many political figures who have added addressing unemployment amongst veterans to their lists of goals.
Making sure service members can exercise their right to vote is another topic addressed in Allen’s compact with Veterans. According to Allen’s website, nearly 12,500 military and overseas ballots requested in Virginia in 2008 were not sent out by the deadline and more than 3,000 ballots that arrived after Election Day were not counted.
“What do you all think about the problems we’re having right now with the election, with the ballots getting to the folks overseas?,” Susan Allen asked on Monday.
Pianalto said that Virginia has been proactive about the issue, allowing absentee voters to request and receive ballots electronically, although they still have to print the ballots and send hard copies to vote.
“Our number one objective for the Joint Leadership Council [of Veterans Service Organizations] this year is to change that to allow them to vote electronically,” Pianalto said.
He gave the example of a submarine that was submerged for months, meaning the crew could not send absentee ballots by the deadline.
“The whole ship had no chance to vote,” he said.
The veterans present agreed that there needs to be a concentrated effort to register military voters and encourage them to request absentee ballots.
Sequestration, and the more than $50 Billion in defense cuts that will trigger automatically in January following the breakdown in debt ceiling negotiations last year, was decried by both the veterans and Susan Allen.
“It’s awful,” she said. “And it’s abysmal because nobody took action and the inaction is what caused the stupidity of these cuts.”
The veterans brought up the topic of aging military equipment and voiced concerns about cutting defense spending.
“We’ve been advocating for defense spending to be at least four percent of the gross domestic product,” said Bill Flanagan, a goal that is shared by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his plan for national defense.
Former Marine Lauren Bands, who holds leadership positions in local American Legion and VFW posts, brought up a more intangible concern of veterans.
“I think one of the big things we’re all concerned about...is patriotism in this country is going down hill at a fast pace,” he said. “I’d like to see that somehow turn around and I think your husband would be one to push that.”
Allen said that she hoped local schools would invite veterans to talk to students about the reasons for their service and Bands noted that local organizations, such as the American Legion and VFW, have been distributing flags to schools and teaching students how to properly handle them.
After talking with the veterans for approximately 45 minutes, Allen said she had two and half pages of notes to share with her husband.
“I think your husband has to be elected two terms to cover all these issues,” said Bands of a list of topics that also included establishing more veterans care facilities in Virginia, seeking greater representation for Virginia on veterans issues in Congress and appointments of students to military academies.
Susan Allen noted that she thinks the outbreak of unrest in the Middle East has made defense a priority issue again.
“We’ve been saying this election is about jobs, the economy and energy. I think, with the most recent events, it just pushes defense and our military to the forefront even more, so that’s a good thing for our side, because I really believe we want to work hard to look out for the interests of our veterans and those in the armed service now,” she said.
Allen said that the concerns she heard from local veterans on Monday were similar to those she has been hearing from veterans across Virginia, with healthcare and sequestration at the top of the list. Those factors, she said, seemed to be prompting veterans to become very engaged in the current election cycle.
“I’m so grateful that they take the time to express their concerns,” she said.
Susan Allen has been traveling Virginia, visiting small businesses and meeting with veterans and other groups, as her husband campaigns against Democratic rival and fellow former Governor Tim Kaine.
Before meeting with veterans on Monday, Susan Allen stopped by Angel Touch Electrolysis and Skin Spa on Boulevard to speak to Colonial Heights business owners and meet with local politicians.
“What can I tell George on behalf of y’all?” she asked the voters crowded into the store’s lobby.
Improving the economy to promote consumer spending and reducing red tape and fees imposed on business owners were amongst the suggestions Allen received.
Monday marked the 50 countdown to the Election on Nov. 6.