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Baldwin-sponsored bill would allow federal grants to support local veterans service officers

Bill was approved in the US Senate, awaits vote in the House of Representatives

Veterans sit on a bench
Photo Courtesy of Lester Public Library

Local veterans service officers connect veterans with federal programs, file pension and compensation claims, and help them enroll in job, housing, disability and education benefits.

But, in Wisconsin, those positions are largely funded by county or tribal governments.

“We get a small grant from the state, and that’s it,” said Joe Aulik, the Brown County Veterans Service Officer. “Other large human services-type departments in counties get major funding from the federal government to help their citizens, and we’re out here trying to help the veterans who served their country.”

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A bipartisan bill — sponsored by Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin — aims to change that. The legislation recently passed the U.S. Senate unanimously, but still needs a vote in the House of Representatives before heading to the president’s desk.

The Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach Act would allow the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, to provide grants to states to improve outreach and support for veterans submitting benefit claims, or to increase the number of local veterans service officers in a state.

The VA would be required to prioritize awarding grants in areas with shortages of county or tribal veterans service officers, places with high suicide rates among veterans, and areas with high referrals to the Veterans Crisis Line.

“Right now, not a single federal penny goes into the county veterans service officer network,” Baldwin said. “We think — especially in areas of high need — that there should be a federal role because these officers are helping them access federal benefits.”

Baldwin said local veterans service officers also played a role in uncovering problems with a former doctor’s work at the Tomah VA Medical Center who is alleged to have misdiagnosed veterans with traumatic brain injuries.

Over 600 veterans were eligible to have their disability claims reexamined after VA officials identified problems with the former doctor’s work at the Tomah facility. The VA made the announcement after Baldwin said she met with VA Secretary Denis McDonough and pushed him to investigate the situation.

Baldwin said veterans service officers in the counties surrounding the Tomah hospital helped establish a pattern of misdiagnosis.

“Once that pattern was established, this wasn’t just standing side by side with one veteran or two veterans, we realized that this might be very widespread,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said cases like that highlight the vital role that local veterans service officers play in their communities, and why it’s important for the federal government to provide additional resources.

“It is so important the role that county veterans service officers play not only in helping each veteran one at a time, but also noticing trends and noticing concerns that need to be raised to a higher level,” she said.

Aulik said a previous version of the veterans service officers bill had passed the House, but failed to clear the Senate. He hopes this time the bill reaches the president’s desk.

“It’s just time that we pass a version of this bill,” he said. “The longer you wait, the more veterans go without. The sooner we can do this, the more veterans that can be helped and improve the quality of their lives.”