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Senators Told More Outreach Needed for V.I. Veterans

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Feb. 26, 2008 — While there are currently more than 15,000 veterans living in the territory, only about 5,000 have registered with the local Office of Veterans Affairs, prompting the need for more outreach activities and programs, according to agency representatives at Tuesday's Senate Committee on Housing, Sports and Veterans Affairs.
Because of the low registration numbers, the agency is looking at tapping into the unknown veteran population by conducting what has been dubbed "supermarket days" — public events that will connect local vets with groups and organizations providing a variety of veterans' services. According to Harry Daniel, assistant director of the Office of Veteran's Affairs, the first event will kick off in the territory in September and will specifically target senior and homeless veterans.
"We want to see how many veterans we can reach with this," Daniel said. "And we also want to make sure they receive whatever benefits they are due. Some of them don't realize that their benefits have not expired as yet, and we want to see to it that they can still make use of them."
To make the registration process easier, Daniel also stressed the need for his office to implement an interactive database system in which veterans' records can be stored. He said the agency is currently awaiting recommendations from the Bureau of Information Technology on how to set up a temporary system until the government's new network comes online.
Daniel's statements were echoed later in the meeting by About Face Inc.(AFI) president Sydney Flax, who explained that an electronic system would help the office better prepare its yearly budget, and "plan for the future with greater accuracy." Once such a system is in place, however, it is incumbent upon the Veteran's Affairs Office to ensure that local vets actually sign up, he said.
To aid in the registration process, veterans must also be given their own identification card, which can be used in conjunction with About Face Inc.'s new "Veteran's Discount Program" Flax added.
"Last year, About Face Inc, a veteran's support organization, announced the Veteran's Discount Program, which has been set up with the help of several local businesses," Flax said. "AFI has enquired about the equipment needed for this project and the relative particulars for its acquisition," he said. "With the ever increasing cost of living, I urge this committee to move quickly on this item. When done, this translates into more veterans and their dependents being able to shop for groceries and other staples at significant savings."
Supported by testimony supplied during the meeting by a panel of local veterans, Flax requested that senators look into improving a range of veterans' services, including the availability of quality health care and certain tax benefits. Other testifiers also discussed veterans' ability to acquire taxi medallions, and suggested that the Veteran's Affairs Office be responsible for the administration of the application and award process.
In outlining the agency's priorities for the upcoming year, Daniel said that plans are currently in the works for the establishment of national cemeteries on both St. Thomas and St. Croix. Before going to federal government for approval, however, legislation authorizing the project must also be drafted and submitted, along with a budget proposal, he said.
Daniel added that the agency is also under way with V.I. National Guard officials for the issuance of veteran identification cards, and is also working with the San Juan Health Center to improve medical care available to veterans.
After taking a four-hour break, senators reconvened around 6 p.m. for a meeting of the Committee on Planning and Environmental Projection. After several rounds of questioning, senators decided to unanimously approve a minor coastal zone permit for Christian Kajaer, to allow for the continued use of the existing dock on the north eastern side of Great St. James Island.
Representing Kjaer during the hearing, attorney Kevin D'Amour said that the permit had nothing to do with Kjaer's plans to bring a large-scale housing development to the island, and was needed in order for the dock to remain in compliance with regulations set by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Present during Tuesday's meetings were Sens. Louis P. Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Usie R. Richards, James A. Weber III, Carmen M. Wesselhoft, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
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