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New veterans officer search nears its end

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A full-time veterans service officer could be hired before Christmas, according to Larry Kleinhenz, chairman of the Bartholomew County Commissioners.

The move is designed to help thousands of military veterans get access to adequate medical care and other federal benefits, Kleinhenz said Friday.

At week’s end, commissioners were trying to decide between two finalists, culled from more than 50 applicants. No official job offer had been made, Kleinhenz said. He declined to provide the names of the people still in the running.

The county wants someone on the job by the start of the new year. It will be the first full-time veterans service officer hired in the county.

The job has been a part-time post, supplemented with a full-time secretarial worker. But local veterans groups complained about poor performance and a lack of responsiveness when veterans tried to work with the office in recent months.

“I am hoping the commissioners pick a good one,” said Larry Durnil, who is active in the 40 and 8 veterans group, named after World War I-era boxcars that hauled 40 troops or eight horses at a time to battle.

Durnil said the local veterans assistance office has done a poor job arranging for a van to carry Bartholomew County veterans to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Indianapolis for outpatient care.

“We’re still having problems there, and we hope the new hire will do a better job,” he said.

The full-time position will pay an annual salary in the low $30,000s. Once the new hire is on board, Kleinhenz said that person will recommend someone for an assistant’s role, basically a part-time position paying $2,200 per year. The assistant will be expected to keep in touch with Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion posts and do other occasional outreach work.

Two additional part-time employees will help run the office, Kleinhenz said.

Of the nine people who went through a formal interview, three currently work for the county in some capacity. All of the finalists have military backgrounds, a factor considered a prerequisite to get the job, Kleinhenz said.

Tom Applegate, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, said via email that his agency considers at least six month’s active service in the armed forces — with an honorable discharge — to be a key factor.

Kleinhenz said the veterans service officer needs to make sure county veterans get all the benefits they deserve, even later in life or long after their military service.

Between Oct. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011, Bartholomew County’s 5,718 veterans received $18.3 million in total Veterans Affairs’ expenditures, about half of that total for education and VA health care, officials said.

“We want to see those dollar totals increase,” Kleinhenz said, adding that the new veterans service officer will be evaluated in part by that standard.

A veterans service officer is generally charged with helping veterans wade through federal rules and appeals processes when they seek benefits linked to their military careers, including health care treatments and disability payments.

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