Veterans say benefits are being delayed
By Jessie Burchette
A group of veterans is calling on county officials to improve services offered to an estimated 13,000 veterans in Rowan County.
They contend the county’s veterans services officer isn’t getting the job done, causing delays in veterans getting benefits. And with more coming home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they fear the situation will get worse.
After complaints to County Manager Gary Page, the county has put $17,000 more in the Veterans Services Department budget.
Three veterans ó Will Pleasants, Bill Wallin and Rodney Cress ó recently took their complaints public. After talking privately with county commissioners and other county officials, they spoke out at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting, calling for better service and better treatment of veterans.
All cited the sacrifices veterans have made for their country and the need to get benefits due them.
Cress said last week the county is now providing more money for equipment and supplies for the Veterans Services office. But he said that won’t solve the problem, which he insists rests with Rowan’s single veterans services officer, Elaine Howle.
“It still doesn’t help the fact that she is incompetent in our opinion,” Cress said.
Cress said he’s had repeated complaints from veterans who say Howle ends meetings with veterans abruptly at 5 p.m., saying “I’m out of here,” and telling others she can’t return phone calls.
Howle, the county’s veterans services officer for the past 15 months and herself a veteran, said she thinks she’s doing a good job.
Howle reports to Clyde Fahenstock, senior services director. Previous veterans services officers reported to Ken Deal, director of administration, and were housed in the Cohen Administrative Services Building at 130 West Innes St. Last October, the office was moved to the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, 1120 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
Howle said she is “fine with the way things are” but has expressed some complaints.
She needs better technology and equipment, she said last week. She’d rather have a faster computer and a printer in her office than additional personnel. She has to run down the hall to a printer and copier.
“The county doesn’t want me to have my own copier or printer,” she said.
In a May 20 e-mail responding to Pleasants ó one of the veterans asking for better service ó Howle wrote that she rarely looked at her e-mail because she doesn’t have time.
She wrote in that e-mail: “I always handle my veterans. I have had over 2500 contacts in exactly one year. I just can’t … process their claims, play my phone messages and look at E-mail and be out at exactly 1700 hours (5 p.m.) and management won’t let me stay longer. I have no budget, can’t attend meetings (went to Lexington for training today at my own expense). I’m not supposed to make copies, can’t get ink, etc.”
Over the past few months, Cress and other veterans have met with county officials privately to register concerns.
Page copied Cress on an e-mail sent to commissioners in June and asked veterans to give him time to deal with the issues.
Page wrote that “Mrs. Howle has been counseled on phone response etiquette,” and that she has access to clerical support, a receptionist and has adequate office supplies.
Page said he has taken care of financial shortcomings and Howle now has money for supplies and travel.
Page wrote that while Howle is limited to 40 hours per week, she can work a flexible schedule and can work past 5 p.m. But Page advised that with everyone leaving the facility at 5 p.m., “We haven’t wanted her in the building with a client by herself very often.”
The veterans also want county commissioners to appoint an advisory board made up of veterans to oversee the veterans services program.
Howle says she doesn’t need an advisory board.
The veterans opted to make their case for an advisory board during the public comment portion of a commissioners meeting after their efforts to get on the meeting agenda failed.
In an e-mail to Commissioner Jon Barber in July, Cress wrote: “Veterans will not be sacrificed because some department head does not want another board keeping tabs on his employees.”
Cress rejected a proposal for a combined seniors and veterans board, telling Barber. “This is absolutely stupid. The VA system is very complicated, and we would spend more time trying to explain to non-veterans what we are doing and then get all kinds of stupid and nonsense questions, just like now.”
Cress said last week if the county doesn’t want to appoint a board and solve the problems, there may be thousands of angry veterans come the next election.
“They seem to think we are a special interest group, but we are not,” he said. “We fought, and many died, to be called veterans.”
Commissioners are still weighing their options.
Carl Ford, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he believed things were getting better. But he hasn’t closed the door on appointing an advisory panel.