County invests in Veterans Service Office

Despite a mandate from the state to have one, the agency is now in the works


Earlier this year, on Feb. 19, the Tompkins County Legislature adopted a local law to allow the County Administrator to appoint an Executive Director to a county-wide Veterans Service Agency. The 2019 budget included $100,00 for the new agency, and temporary space was found in the Office for the Aging building on State St. /MLK St. for the agency office. Now it just needs a leader.
New York State Executive Law requires the county to have a Veterans Service Office, but until now the county has not had one. While there has been a New York State Veterans Affairs presence in the county with an office in Center Ithaca, it’s not the same. County Administrator Jason Molino wasn’t sure why a required office wasn’t created sooner and doesn’t know why it’s being created now. He did note that the county was receiving some complaints from the state level that Tompkins County veterans were traveling to other county service agencies to get help. Molino said that veterans were still being served by a state Veterans Service officer in the area, even while a county office was not there.

According to the job description for the Executive Director position, the Veterans Service Office is largely aiming to be where local veterans go to get help accessing the benefits they are entitled to. Navigating the system can be a long, tiresome process filled with red tape, lots of required documentation, and several hoops. But local veterans want more than just help to get their benefits.

Jim Murphy is a local veteran who has made it his mission to connect with other local veterans and help them get the services and resources they need. One thing he would like to see the office provide is counseling services specifically crafted for veterans that can also address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not only would he like there to be one-on-one counseling options available, but group counseling that takes into account the different experiences of veterans who served during different conflicts.

Mental health services, or at least support in finding them, was noted by several veterans.

“I would like to see mental health, but even a walk-in clinic, so we can meet people who can be seen right away,” said Karen Van Etten, a veteran who served in the Air Force for about four years as an emergency medical technician. “Sometimes people are thinking about suicide and it’s almost an impulse, so it’s good to be able to talk with somebody. I know they have the suicide prevention hotline but sometimes service people have totally different feelings about things.”

Beyond the mental health services, Van Etten thinks that having some sort of liaison for veterans just leaving the service and transitioning back to civilian life would be a good addition to the office. Life outside of the uniform is vastly different from life in it.

The need to reflect the unique situation that veterans are in was a theme in many of the veteran’s answers. Veterans have their own language and an experience that a civilian will never really understand. Taking that into account when providing services will help them succeed.

Greg Oertel, a veteran who served in the Air Force for about three years as a structural specialist, doesn’t want the office to be a duplication of local services, or to send veterans back through the government pipeline if there are local resources available.

“One of the problems that I see here is that it seems that they’re using the same old method that has proved to be ineffective to solve these problems, and perhaps some of the problems that we face – that are unique to veterans – aren’t necessarily problems that we need more government for,” Oertel said. “Maybe these are community issues.”

Instead of just sending veterans to doctors, Oertel would like to see more investment in other resources. In all the years that he has sought medical help from the Veterans Administration, he said not a single doctor had asked about his diet. What if the office could promote or coordinate healthy cooking classes for veterans with local providers and organizations? These are the non-traditional ideas that Orteal wants to see more of. Right now he said he feels cynical about the office and the timing of its creation with the recent expansion of veteran health benefits at the federal level that could bring in a lot of money to local medical providers. He applauds the county for taking action and sees it as an opportunity for the agency’s executive director to do some good and help connect veterans with services already available in the area.

Older veterans may not be able to make it to the office. Murphy would like to see the executive director get out of the office and reach out to veterans who can’t travel to them. Murphy also wants to see care taken to seek out veterans of color in the area.

“We’d like to see an honest outreach to make sure people are getting their services, and also connecting to what other veterans situations are around here,” he said.

Like Orteal, Murphy wants to see a lot of communication and coordination with services already available in the area with the new agency, especially Loaves and Fishes, the local non-profit food provider that Murphy works with to do veteran outreach.

His address may not be in Tompkins County, but a large part of John White’s life is. White is a veteran who served in the Marins from 1973 to 1979, at one point serving in Okinawa. He’s not exactly sure what he would want to see from a Veterans Service Agency, but he knows what he doesn’t want to see.
“Probably more than anything else that I would go there for is professional advice,” he said. “I want to have a knowledgeable person. I wouldn’t want to have some government employee that was hired by the county, or any branch of the government, without the experience and without the knowledge to lead me in the right direction.”

According to the job description, the executive director must have served on active duty in the armed forces during a period of war and must have been honorably discharged or released under honorable circumstances. From the job description, “The Director will act as a steward of the County, and have considerable interaction with internal and external stakeholders, and the public, in the coordination, promotion, and delivery of services. This specialized role involves counseling and assisting members of the Armed Forces, veterans, and their families concerning the rights, benefits and services to which they are entitled under law.”

White would like the office to help veterans with transportation if they need to visit the VA clinic in Syracuse, more outreach, and, like other veterans, doesn’t want to see a duplication of services.

Along with mental health and the need for services to understand the unique situation of being a veteran, one other idea kept coming up again and again; right now, there isn’t really a space for veterans to come and meet up with other veterans during the day. Several of the veterans interviewed for this piece suggested that the office have a space available, maybe with a simple coffee pot and some chairs, for veterans to connect with other service members.

“With the addition of a Director of Veterans Services position being added to the County’s current Veterans Programs I believe it will provide, consolation of services, communication, and resources for local Veterans and their families,” said Pat Masters a local veteran and member of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office in the corrections division. Masters has been an unofficial resource for local veterans who need help navigating the benefits process.

The application process for the director is over. Of the 25 or so applicants, Molino said around 10 met the qualifications and the county is in the interview process. The county is hoping to have a director appointed within the next few weeks.


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