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Editorial: VA office enters new era in county

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The appointment of Tom Crawford, a retired career soldier with the U.S. Army, as Bartholomew County’s veterans service officer ushers in a new era for local veterans and Bartholomew County government.

Crawford, who served more than 20 years in the Army in a variety of assignments — including three deployments to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — began his new duties at the first of the year.

The appointment of the Columbus man to the job marks the first time in decades that a veteran will fill the full-time position.

In recent times, the veterans service officer position has been assigned part-time status. By law, the job must go to a veteran. In the past, most (sometimes all) of the administrative details of the office, such as initiating claims, looking into appeals or scheduling rides on a van for trips to the VA hospital, have been handled by administrative staff.

The office and the county commissioners recently came under criticism from some veterans who expressed frustrations about how they were treated in their dealings with the office.

While some called for a change in operations, many veterans expressed support for the work done by Judy Devening, the administrative assistant in the office who processed their claims. She was the guest of honor at an appreciation lunch hosted by a number of those veterans before she stepped down from her former full-time position, which has since been restructured to a part-time status.

Many of those administrative duties will now be assumed directly by Crawford. He will be aided by a part-time assistant. Although the commissioners were required to fill the post with a veteran, there were a number of other reasons for making this administrative change.

For one thing, the availability of a veteran on a full-time basis in the position is a form of reassurance to those veterans who would avail themselves of the office’s services, in particular those newly discharged from the military.

Although this community has made extraordinary efforts, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to see to the needs of those who serve and have served in the military, it is important that there be a formal apparatus in place for veterans to obtain information and services that are available to them.

Certainly civilians can have the empathy and ability to deal with veterans’ needs, but the comfort of dealing with a fellow veteran will make the process much more palatable, especially to those who have recently been discharged.

But this position should be about much more than administrative duties. The veterans service officer should also be a champion for and representative of veterans in the community. The officer should be involved in the myriad activities within the community that single out veterans, ranging from the Salute! concert to the USO program at Camp Atterbury.

In many respects, the office can serve as a central clearinghouse for veterans programs.

It is incumbent on the community to reach out to and include the VA office in veteran-related activities. The service officer should be able to coordinate with local educational institutions where veterans might seek to pursue college credits and need information about assistance programs, for instance.

Crawford certainly has a lot on his plate at this early stage in his newly retooled position. Over the long haul, he has the opportunity to bring the office into the mainstream of community life. To get that done, he will need the support of his fellow veterans and the collaboration of the community.

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