Allegra Tepper |Veterans’ unemployment and homelessness were at the top of the agenda at a town hall meeting Friday afternoon hosted at Santa Monica College by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler.
Senior Staff Reporter
February 25, 2012 | 12:17 a.m. PST
Senior Staff Reporter
“My father was an Air Force lieutenant colonel and as a little girl, I always remember him saying, ‘Thanks be to God and the G.I. Bill,’” Butler said to a packed room of about 70. The 50th district assemblywoman was recently named the Vietnam Veterans of America’s 2011 Legislator of the Year.
“This is an issue that’s a very high priority of mine, and I hope that this will be the first of a number of these town halls," she said.
The town hall included representatives from 13 state, federal, and veteran advocacy organizations including the Salvation Army, Veterans First and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“I can’t do anything about many of these issues at the federal level, so today was about getting people who can do something about it into the room to hear these issues,” Butler said. “This pulls at my heartstrings quite a bit and is something I prioritize.”
Butler was elected to the California State Assembly in 2010. Since then, she has proposed a bill that would establish designated veterans’ courts that would handle sentencing and treatment programs exclusively for veterans. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill due to budget constraints. Butler plans to introduce the bill once more, along with two other veterans bills.
The vast majority of the organizations at Friday’s town hall drew focus to their efforts to assist veterans with housing and federal paperwork for service-connected disability compensation and pension.
Sol Liebster, an employee of the West Los Angeles VA, said that for the most part, they were ignoring the elephant in the room.
“I heard from so many people up front, but besides a couple of references here and there, no one talked about jobs,” he said. “If a guy has a job, then he has the means to build himself up and get off the streets. And once they have that self-esteem, which is what they really want, they’ll find other successes. It goes hand-in-hand with homelessness; there’s no question it’s the biggest problem and it ought to be addressed vehemently.”
According to the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CDVA), employment ranks among four of the highest priorities for veterans; the others are education, housing and healthcare.
Despite Liebster advocating for a greater focus on employment, the need to address veteran housing was equally palpable, particularly when Marco Fierro took the floor.
Fierro served as a combat soldier in the Gulf War. A homeless cancer patient, he is struggling to take care of his wife and three children, ages 7, 10 and 12.
“I put in applications for housing and I’ll take anything,” Fierro said. “But all I get are denials. From the VA, nothing. From the Salvation Army, nothing. And when I do get privileges, it’s just to put my name in the system before civilians. That’s not a job.”
“Trying to keep my children’s heads up while they’re watching their dad fight cancer and homelessness,” he said, “It’s just really heartbreaking.”
With an expected 30,000 veterans returning to California from Afghanistan and Iraq each month this year, CDVA Secretary Major General Peter Gravett said that these issues are only growing direr.
“Sixty-seven percent of homeless vets are Vietnam era veterans,” he said. “We need to address several generations at once. We have over 2.2 million veterans in California, and that number is just going to get bigger.”
“Younger veterans have a lot more physical medical issues than our Vietnam vets did,” he continued. “With military advances, those men are on operating tables in warzones in as little as 20 minutes. Instead of dying, they’re coming home with missing limbs. We need to honor those men by providing these services to them.”
William Duke Gatlin served in the Marine Core in the 1980s. He has since suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but has been denied compensation from the Department of Federal Affairs. He said that he was upset to hear so much focus on the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq as opposed to the general veteran population.
“We aren’t happy to come to an event like this and find out that those people are going to take precedence over us while we have gone without for so long,” he said. “I say take care of us all. No preferential treatment.”
Thomas Sells, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, spoke at the start of the meeting about his struggles with PTSD, cancer and reintegration after the war. He was thrilled by the turnout of veterans’ organizations and said he’d never seen so many in one place. As for the crowd, he was nothing short of disappointed.
“There are more vets drinking coffee in the lobby of the VA than we had here today,” he said. “Those people need to be here, they need to hear this.”
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