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Veteran advocates push for legislative action on services

January 30, 2016

Gov. Mike Pence's focus on a plan to certify veteran-owned businesses isn't enough response to reports that Indiana is lacking in services for former members of the military, four of the state's largest veterans' organizations said Friday.

Members of the groups vented their frustrations with the state's services for the nearly 476,000 veterans in Indiana and what they perceive as the Legislature's complacency during a news conference Friday.

A proposed bill would streamline the process for veteran-owned businesses to get business contracts more easily, something lobbyist Lisa Wilken with the support group American Veterans said would help that specific group, but doesn't address a larger number of military members. She also said her group—as well as other groups — attempted to meet with Pence's staff to talk about different ideas for legislation, but received no feedback.

"That's discouraging because the Governor's Office being there to testify on the legislation sends a strong message to our Indiana General Assembly," Wilken said.

Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks responded that under the Republican's leadership, the state has made strides addressing veterans' concerns, citing the nearly $760 million in federal money the state received since 2011.

But Retired Brig. Gen. Jim Bauerle, who volunteers with the Veterans Coalition of Indiana, said the increase is a result of the four veterans' organizations' work helping veterans claim their benefits.

"That was never a priority of the Governor nor was it a legislative priority of the Senate or the House," he said. "Those are the organizations that have done the lion's share of the work."

A 2014 third-party report on the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs found the department had shortfalls in its strategy and does little outreach, suggesting a "true redesign" of the department. The report by Public Consulting Group found that in 2013, the state spent $3.67 per veteran. Meanwhile, Texas spent $18.69, Missouri spent $15.97 and Alabama spent $29.40.

This year, the state Senate is working on including all veterans in the Military Family Relief Fund, which subsidizes expenses such as housing and medical bills. Currently, the fund only supports post-Sept. 11 veterans. The proposed bill would also provide avenues for people to donate to the fund through their tax returns.

The state has 710 homeless veterans, Army Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost has said, and the unemployment rate for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is 10 percent—three points higher than the national average.

"Where is the governor's priority on taking care of veterans?" Bauerle said. "They wipe their hands of it and say 'Well, it's for the federal government to do' instead of being progressive and forward thinking."

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