Ridgecrest Daily Independent: Local Committee Leads The Charge For Veteran Benefits
A committee of five, led by Mayor Ron Carter, battles on for veteran benefits in Ridgecrest.
"One man I spoke to has to wait 65 to 280 days to complete disability out of service, but he needs medical attention now," Carter said. "That's common throughout. There's a guy with Parkinson's, with Agent Orange, it took him four years to get benefits. Another took one full year to get a hearing aid."
In recent months, Carter has heard from veterans of World War II, Desert Storm, the Korean War, and the two current wars with similar problems.
"They don't want to deal with the VA administration. They're fighting like crazy to get their benefits, they can't get medical insurance," he said. "The VA is not there. It's like it's invisible. Some have had their paperwork lost. The VA administration is not equipped to handle it."
After months of armoring up for the task, the Veterans Advisory Committee formally established itself as an ad hoc committee at the City Organization and Services Committee meeting on Jan. 9.
Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway, residents Andy Anderson, Nick Coy, and Gwendolyn Thornton make up the committee with Carter.
Carter explained that he established the group after witnessing much mistreatment among veterans.
"As our wars are winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm coming across more and more of our servicemen who can't get benefits taken care of from the VA," Carter said. "It's a tragedy."
Over the past few months, Carter said he spoke with multiple legislators about the issues. He expressed particular gratitude with the assistance from Congressman Kevin McCarthy in the effort.
On McCarthy's visit to Ridgecrest in Nov. 2011 with Congressman Buck McKeon, he met with the veterans committee.
"Originally, he only had ten minutes with his tight schedule," Carter explained. "But he stayed for over 40 minutes and listened to every vet that was there."
McCarthy drafted a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office on Oct. 24 seeking a study on the delay in veteran benefits, particularly with the Los Angeles Regional Office. According to Press District Secretary Andrea McCarthy, the GAO was in favor of the study and is working toward progress for veterans.
Holloway noted that McCarthy has a bipartisan deal for a pilot program in the works, which seeks assistance from local agencies to provide veterans services and to be reimbursed by the VA.
"There are a lot of medical issues that don't need a trip to L.A.," Holloway said. "There is a lot that medical providers can do locally, but because of the way it's set up right now, they would be losing money to help the veterans."
Coy is a Vietnam veteran and Ridgecrest resident for nearly 29 years. He is hopeful to receive medical services for veterans locally, despite doctors' loss of money if not reimbursed by the VA as fully as with other patients.
He stressed the inconvenience for Ridgecrest locals being forced to drive multiple hours for a 15 minute appointment at a clinic in Los Angeles, Loma Linda, Bakersfield, Victorville, or Lancaster.
According to Coy, the committee is planning a Stand Down Conference for this spring.
The intent for the expected two-day conference is for businesses within the community to offer services for veterans such as free haircuts, medical assistance, or guidance on how to receive benefits.
"It is our hope that the community will join in on this effort," Carter said.
Another major goal of the Committee is to create a 'safe haven for local vets.'
"There are things we need in town, and there is a way to get them done if we push for it," Coy said. "The top priority is a Veterans Center. Some vets are actually homeless. They don't have anything. They need to be able to come there and feel comfortable, come there and get a hot meal. Perhaps we could have a shower facility available. We just want to get them help and maybe make a change in their lives."
Carter encourages locals in the community to contact elected state and federal officials to grant priority in veterans assistance. For those needing local help, contact Carter or Holloway at (760) 499-5004, Coy at (760) 608-1484, or Thornton at (760) 446-4627.
The Veterans Advisory Committee next meets Jan. 30 at 1 p.m. at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building. Public and veterans are encouraged to attend.