- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

What’s a reasonable time to await a response from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on my military records request?

After 3½ months without a reply despite several follow-ups, I engaged an assist from a veterans service organization. NARA online promises three to four weeks of turnaround in most cases.

My service officer is “on the job,” but — just in case — how much longer should we wait?

— Dave P., Parowan, Utah

Dear Dave:

I have heard from many frustrated veterans who, like you, have had difficulty in obtaining their records from NARA. These complaints include NARA’s unfriendly Web site as well as its overburdened automated phone system. Let’s hope that highlighting your concern will encourage the powers that be to improve the agency’s service to veterans and their families.

Shaft notes

The Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Healthcare Center has an innovative project and flag deliciously titled “Strawberry Flag” on a grass quadrangle on its West Los Angeles campus. The strawberries in this project are real.

Artist Lauren Bon and a team from the Metabolic Studio are working with Veterans Affairs mental health personnel and veterans to create a beneficial clinical project for veterans and a project to profit our planet, and the results are starting to show their powerful stripes.

The American flag is centrally located on northern side of the VA campus. It is as large as a football field, but it smells far better than a football field.

Veterans have been proudly engaged since the project’s earliest stages — from completion of the infrastructure to the preparation, planting, harvesting, processing and jarring of the strawberries.

Like a traditional American flag, this flag has 13 stripes made of reclaimed strawberries with friendly and inviting walking paths. On the top corner is a blue field, shaded by existing trees, made of an edible herb called borage and white star-shaped flowers.

The Strawberry Flag renews strawberry plants that otherwise would have been discarded.

“The Strawberry Flag project has generated a number of recovery-oriented clinical opportunities for veterans and the general outpatient sector at [West] LA. These opportunities derive from the construction of a dynamic art object, maintenance of the object, nurturing of the strawberry plants, training in innovative greening technologies, hands-on production of jam, and mastering the print-making process,” said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, associate chief of mental health.

Strawberries are fragile, but this flag will remain strong in years to come. Let’s not forget what the Beatles once sang: “Strawberry Fields forever.”

Senate approval

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has unanimously approved the nomination of Dr. Robert A. Petzel to be undersecretary for health of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dr. Petzel is VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, and has served as a VA network director and as a chief of staff of a VA medical center. As undersecretary for health, Dr. Petzel would lead a growing health care system with hundreds of points of care, millions of patients, and VA’s mental health care, medical education, research and rehabilitative operations.

24/7 help line

Did you know that the Department of Veterans Affairs fields questions from veterans 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Since 2002, VA has used the Inquiry Routing and Information System (IRIS) to receive questions from veterans via www.va.gov. Visitors can click on the “Contact the VA” link on the home page to send a question. Inquiries are routed to the appropriate VA program office, medical center or network office, Veterans Benefits Administration regional office or National Cemetery Administration office either by self-selected choices on the Web site or by call-center staff.

IRIS is also the tool of choice for veterans benefits call centers, which enter inquiries on behalf of veterans and others.

In 2002, IRIS had 750 internal users and received between 2,000 and 3,000 inquiries per month. As of December, IRIS had 2,000 internal users and was receiving approximately 30,000 inquiries per month with the numbers continually rising.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, DC 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257-5446; or e-mail sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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