- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

Our wounded American servicemen and women are returning to our communities from a global war on terrorism, and we, as Americans, are faced with the challenge of supporting them once home.

These brave men and women will need to establish homes, find employment and work to reconnect with their communities. The American Legion strives to inspire Americans to get involved and be the “welcome-home committee” for these returning warriors.

In 2006, the American Legion teamed with the Defense Department’s Military Severely Injured Center in a transition-assistance program called “Heroes to Hometowns.” The American Legion encourages Americans to partner with it at the community level to meet the needs of our servicemen and women. For new severely disabled veterans, finding a job, getting transportation, seeking training and finding a place to live are a few of the concerns that a grateful community can help address.

If you can volunteer time, effort or resources, visit www.legion.org or call 703/908-6250 to see how you can help.

Scott Sundsvold

Commander, American Legion D.C. Post 1

1608 K St. NW

Washington, D.C. 20006

Dear Scott:

I urge all my readers to join you and other fellow Americans in this admirable mission.

Shaft notes

Kudos to longtime friend Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, for introducing legislation that would help the Department of Veterans Affairs meet the increasing demands of today’s blind veteran population. The legislation directs the secretary of veterans affairs to establish a scholarship program for students seeking a degree or training in the area of blind rehabilitation. Recipients of the scholarship would be required to work at least three years in the VA system.

“Service members sacrificing for our country in a time of war should be assured that they will receive the best medical treatment and rehabilitation available, without having to wait months or years due to staff shortages. Rehabilitation training for those who have lost their eyesight enables them to function in their surroundings and live more independently,” Mr. Hagel said.

Sens. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, and Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat — both members of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee — joined Mr. Hagel as original co-sponsors of the legislation.

“This VA scholarship program will support students seeking degrees in vision impairment and orientation and mobility programs, like the highly regarded one offered at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb,” Mr. Obama said. “One of the underreported tragedies of this conflict has been the significant increase in eye injuries and vision impairment among our heroic service members. The VA needs more of these skilled professionals to assist our recovering veterans as they learn to lead independent lives.”

From March 2003 to April 2005, 16 percent of all casualties evacuated from Iraq had associated eye injuries. In the coming years, the blind and low-vision veterans’ population is expected to grow by 40 percent.

In 2006, a provision in the annual veterans benefits bill expanded the pool of people serving our veterans as Blind Rehab Outpatient Specialists (BROS).

Today, the VA employs 30 BROS. Unfortunately, there are not enough counselors certified in blind rehabilitation to provide the growing number of blind or low-vision veterans. This has caused a long waiting list for admission at the 10 VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers.

c In order to provide more health care for more veterans, especially mental-health services, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson has directed the 153 medical centers of the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep their doors open longer.

“Illness doesn’t follow a 9-to-5 schedule,” Mr. Nicholson said. “I’m directing our medical centers to provide extended hours to ensure we’re there for the veterans who have earned our care.”

Although the extra hours apply to many hospital-based programs and services, Mr. Nicholson said his latest decision was based upon a desire to ensure VA’s more than 9,000 mental-health professionals are available when veterans need them.

In recent months, Mr. Nicholson has announced a number of initiatives to improve mental health care for returning combat veterans, including the hiring of suicide-prevention coordinators for each medical center, 100 new adjustment counselors for VA’s 207 Vet Centers, and 100 new medical center employees to serve as advocates for the severely wounded.

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

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