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Kelly Seeman

Veterans Groups Hope More Money Will Lead To Better Care

Some Illinois veterans groups want to know how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would spend the additional $4.4 million proposed in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget.

The budget blueprint states the president wants “to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care” for the nine million veterans who use the system.

That’s good news for veterans like Lynn Lowder, CEO of 1 Veteran at a Time, an Aurora-based organization that promotes veteran entrepreneurship.

“Anything we can do to help the VA to do their job better is a good thing,” Lowder said. “But just because you are going to increase the budget by ‘X’ percent, doesn’t necessarily equate to a better form of healthcare.”

Lowder, a Vietnam War veteran and a retired lawyer, said he wants to know where the increased spending would go, and how it will be spent by the VA.

“It’s the quality of the healthcare, and the responsiveness of it, that makes an enormous difference to veterans,” Lowder said.

Lowder, 71, said getting access to care can be a challenge, and veterans often require help navigating the system.

It’s unclear how the VA will specifically use the added money if it is approved by Congress. A spokesman for the agency could not be reached for comment.

“I sincerely hope that a portion of the new funding is going to be designated to support programs for not just veterans but military families and the caregivers as well because they play an important part in the lives of the veterans, especially those who are recovering from injuries,” said Ken Barber, who is head of the Chicago-based nonprofit Illinois Joining Forces. The group works to connect veterans with services, including healthcare.

Barber, a Navy veteran, said he would welcome the funding boost because “veterans deserve the best care and support that this country can provide.”

“I think this funding will result in more resources being available to veterans within their community. That means resources like Illinois Joining Forces are more important that ever,” Barber said. “Illinois Joining Forces ensures that veterans can identify the resources that are available to meet their needs within their particular communities and helping them navigate the pool of all the resource providers out there. That’s going to be just as important as having funding behind those resources.”

Illinois is home to more than 700,000 veterans, according to the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs.

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Chicago Tribune: A Sweet Ending for One Veteran’s Years of Service

“They served all of us. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye”. These words were spoken by President Reagan regarding the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Tracey E. Williams-Hunter (“Tracey”), paused for a moment of silence along with the other members of her battalion. January 28, 1986 was also Tracey’s first day serving in the U.S. Army.

Tracey’s six years of service in the U.S. Army weren’t always easy. Over the years, she was stationed in different parts of the world. Tracey began her basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Bamberg, Germany was her first duty station. Upon re-enlisting, she joined the 25th Support and Transportation Battalion in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Some days were filled with loud noise as soldiers practiced their artillery skills. Drill sergeants were often the first person you would hear in the morning.

During her years of service, Tracey had primarily worked as a food service specialist. She served thousands of meals to captains, commanders and other soldiers. While serving in Hawaii, Tracey would frequent many of the award winning cuisine and restaurants strategizing different recipes. She spent years developing a portfolio with her recipes. Unfortunately, one day, her recipe portfolio was stolen. Tracey was looking forward to the day she had a place to call home.

A few years after she completed her service for the U.S. Army, she was in the process of moving with her husband from their basement apartment to their new townhouse. Tracey’s husband had started a new job. It would be a few weeks before he received his first paycheck. Tracey soon realized that she would not have enough money for the security deposit which was required for the townhouse. Tracey felt her grip become looser and looser on the townhouse she once so optimistically envisioned.

Tracey anxiously got on her computer and did a search which included the keywords “veterans and housing”. Illinois Joining Forces (“IJF”) appeared on her screen. She immediately contacted IJF, which ironically was also her birthday. A staff member at IJF quickly responded to her call. The next few days Tracey and IJF worked together feverishly exchanging information. In approximately two weeks, Tracey was ecstatic to hear that the Homes for Heroes Foundation, through IJF, provided the necessary funds to her new landlord. Tracey is grateful she had the necessary assistance to get her over this hump.

Tracey still resides in that same townhouse today. She is living her dream with a dessert business called “Tracey’s Smack Ya Momma Desserts!” and a catering business called “Blessed & Highly Flavored Catering”. She proudly shares her business on her Facebook page: Sweetznsavory Chef Tracey. Tracey’s goal is to expand her business to include event planning in which she would call “Virtuous Woman Events Planning, Party Planning and Catering”.

Tracey’s best seller is called “Tracey’s Reeses’s Peanut Butter Cup Caramel Chocolate Cake”. “It’s made with fresh peanut butter frosting”, adds Tracey. When asked, Tracey said she had a baker’s secret she would be willing to share. Very enthusiastically she would stroll down the baking aisle in the store gazing at the various items such as baking chips, candies, syrups, and baking mixes. From there she would brainstorm what delectable concoctions she could create. Tracey has training in the Culinary Arts but never received any formal training or instruction in the dessert business. This is a skill that was self-taught as a result of her hard work, ambition and curiosity.

IJF connects service members, veterans and their families with approximately 500 veteran serving organizations (VSO). In collaboration with these trusted and dedicated member organizations, veterans are provided with the respect and care they deserve in order to live productive lives. Family is included in this network because of the integral role they play in the life of the veteran.

Our veterans serve and protect us so we can go about our daily business safely. Unfortunately, when a veteran returns home, they are often presented with new challenges that effect everyday living. “The most common issues veterans face are employment and financial assistance”, said Ken Barber, Executive Director at IJF. As an entry point for these veterans, IJF offers assistance in the following areas; Behavioral Health, Financial Literacy, Benefits and Emergency Assistance, Housing and Homelessness, Education, Legal Support, Women Veterans, Employment & Job Training, Family, Children and Survivors and Faith-Based Organizations.

Tracey receiving the financial support she needed is one example of how an IJF network organization helped her. Others include, one veteran who received a pair of work boots he needed to start a new job. The emergency assistance fund provided a veteran with a train pass he needed for work. Transportation was also provided for a veteran so he can attend a medical appointment.

There is an estimated 700,000 veterans living in Illinois. Illinois ranks tenth in the nation for the largest veteran population. In Illinois, Chicago has the most veterans with Belleville following. IJF’s vision is to find these veterans, and work seamlessly with the other organizations to ensure veterans have the services they need regardless of where they live.

No matter what your situation, IJF has options within reach. If you wish to contact IJF by phone, please call 877-236-7702. During business hours, the call center is operated by veterans at the Chicago Lighthouse. As veterans, these employees understand how difficult it could be to ask for help. During non-business hours, a suicide prevention number is provided.

For those with access to a computer, please visit IllinoisJoiningForces.org or email at info@illinoisjoiningforces.org. In addition, last Fall, IJF launched VetQnect, a mobile app for veterans and military service members in the state. IJF believes assisting veterans is a critical mission that cannot fail.

Tracey made 200 of her signature cupcakes for the various IJF organizations as a way of saying thank you. For Tracey that was probably easy. She already fed an army.

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Our National Guard’s Role – Ombudsman

Every state has a National Guard – as does the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The National Guard traces its roots to the colonial militias. Those militias were the first to fight the British and later the rebels. They bought time until the Army could be increased.

The militias were poorly funded and there were always questions of control in the field. They were abolished and the National Guard was created at the beginning of the 20th century. The national Guard did not fare much better than the militias – historically criticized for being part-time volunteers who are poorly trained, poorly funded, and under equipped. They comprised a big part of troops in World War I and World War II. National Guard units were among some of the first to meet the enemy in those wars. Again, they bought time while the Army was increased.

The role of the National Guard changed at the end of the 20th century when the Guard transformed from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve. The Illinois National Guard deployment of a Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan in 2008-2009 is an example of the transformation. The question is no longer “if you’re going to deploy” the question is “where are you going to deploy.”

Guard members are citizen soldiers that deploy and then return to their communities, families and civilian employment. The Uniformed Servicemember Employment and Re-employment Rights Act is the law that protects the employment rights of Guard and Reserve members. USRERRA is considered to be the most comprehensive civil rights legislation enacted in the country. However, because only .5% of Americans serve in the Guard or Reserve, it was not tested in the courts – until after all the post-9/11 deployments in the Global War on Terror.

The state Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Committee is charged with protecting the employment rights of Guard and Reserve members.   Funded by the DOD, ESGR has existed since the early 1970s, and is staffed mostly by volunteers. The local ESGR committee exists to educate employers about the USERRA law and resolve servicemember employment complaints. Complaint resolution is handled through ESGR’s Ombudsman Program – designed to resolve complaints through an informal and non-binding mediation program.

The National Guard has adapted to the changes in the military’s use of the Guard and Reserve. However, ESGR has not adapted to the new role of the Guard. The Ombudsman Program has few specific criteria for who can be an Ombudsman – no background in law, HR, labor relations or collective bargaining is required. Further, the USERRA law is technical and dense – regularly confusing attorneys and HR professionals alike. Moreover, valid dispute resolution training takes from 25 to 40 hours. ESGR crams legal training and dispute resolution into three days.

Illinois ESGR is lucky to have some talented volunteers with legal, HR and collective bargaining backgrounds. An Illinois servicemember with an employment issue might get one of the skilled ESGR volunteers – or they may get one whose only exposure has been the substandard training.   Our Guard and Reserve members leave their civilian employment to serve their country. If they have a workplace dispute due to their military service, is it fair to leave those disputes to a group of well-intentioned but poorly trained volunteers?

How to change the situation? Encourage those with the appropriate skill to volunteer as an Ombudsman at www.esgr.mil

Brian Clauss is the Executive Director of The John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic in Chicago.