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Town halls to offer help for vets

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published July 07. 2013 4:00AM
Plans underway for statewide program

Veterans will soon be able to go into any town hall in the state and find a staff member whose job it is to help them.

Among a number of bills Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has signed recently to improve the lives of the state's veterans and service members, is one that requires cities and towns to designate a veterans' service contact person. Each municipality must pick someone by Oct. 1 who can go to an annual training course and help veterans get the services and benefits they have earned.

Malloy also signed bills that expand the eligibility for the State Military Relief Fund, provide protections for those who get called up for state service and allow service members stationed overseas to vote by sending their ballots electronically. And, he approved creating a task force to study whether military occupational training can be used to satisfy the training required for state licensing.

Last year the state formed a "Veterans Cabinet" to streamline how veterans can access programs and services.

"This year, I was proud to sign legislation that further supports Connecticut's military men and women," Malloy said. "Veterans bring special leadership abilities and skills to the table that are vital to making the state a more competitive, better place."

State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said her office needs someone in each municipality to call when there are changes in services that veterans need to know about. Most veterans are not using all of their benefits, she added.

"I think of it as a Connecticut safety net for veterans," she said. "Just knowing someone to contact in your own town is an important step to getting what you need."

The state department plans to hold trainings in each part of the state on the basics of how the federal and state systems work and how claims are processed. The veterans' service contacts will learn how to connect veterans to the correct state or federal offices and help those who are not computer savvy print out the forms they need, Schwartz said.

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he looks forward to working with the state to "provide a conduit for veterans in our community to get the services they need." He said he has not yet picked who the contact person will be. Currently any inquiries from veterans are directed to his office. He said he has received two questions since 2011 and the veterans were quickly helped.

"I think it's important the city appoint someone," Finizio said. "If we publicize this service is available and who the individual is, we might receive a lot more inquiries from people who wouldn't have otherwise known we're also a resource to help them."

Service members receive extensive training through the military for their job specialties but many who leave the service must take similar courses to get licensed for a civilian job. Schwartz said she knows of a combat medic who was told he had to take a 10-week course to be a nurse's aid.

"We need these skills. Particularly in health care, we have a shrinking force of health care providers and here we have a group of young, talented individuals who have experience and talents and could be picking up the slack," Schwartz said.

The National Guard trains many medics, military police officers, electricians and carpenters, whose skills could easily transition to civilian careers, said Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard.

The change to the State Military Relief Fund took effect July 1. The fund, which currently has a balance of about $800,000, was established to provide financial assistance to family members of service members living in Connecticut during times of hardship.

Now members of the armed forces who can't pay their expenses due to their military service can apply for a grant themselves. There are many young, single soldiers and airmen in the Connecticut National Guard, Whitford said.

"Just by that status, they were not able to utilize or tap into the Military Relief Fund if they had a financial hardship," he said.

Two bills that take effect Oct. 1 clarify the protections for National Guardsmen and members of state militia units who are mobilized for a state mission, rather than an overseas deployment. When Guard units are needed, especially during severe weather, sometimes soldiers from units that were not tasked with a mission will volunteer, Whitford said.

The act concerning state military service says that if these volunteers for a state mission are injured, they will receive workers' compensation.

The act concerning military leave from employment requires employers to allow for a leave of absence if an employee is needed for a mission in the state. Federal law prevents employers from firing service members who are deployed on a federal mission.

Connecticut also changed its requirement that service members, who are often at remote posts, return their ballots through the postal service. State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, said when she introduced the bill to allow ballots to be e-mailed or faxed earlier this year that nearly 40 percent of the absentee ballots Connecticut service members cast from overseas in the last election never were received.

By Oct. 1, the secretary of the state, in consultation with the Military Department, must select a method for the service members to return their ballots in any election or primary held after Sept. 1, 2014.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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