Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas is part of a newly formed Veterans Affairs Task Force that held its first meeting Jan. 17 in Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting.
A retired Army officer, former Special Forces soldier and Vietnam veteran, Thomas has a vested interest in how military veterans are treated. He said many of the mayors selected during last year’s mayors’ conference to serve on the Veterans Affairs Task Force represent military communities or communities with large numbers of veterans.
“One of the issues we talked about was veterans’ claims,” Thomas said. “We said we wanted the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) to begin providing support for veterans as soon as they leave the military. We even made a resolution to that effect.”
Thomas understands the VA is heavily burdened with providing health care and disability compensation for tens of thousands of veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the VA also provides services for an aging population of veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Urgent Fury on the island nation of Grenada, Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm, also called the first Gulf War.
The VA not only provides funeral benefits, medical treatment, prescription drugs and disability compensation for these combat veterans, but also for veterans with service-connected injuries incurred during physical-fitness training, combat-training exercises or military vehicle and other service-related accidents, he said.
Thomas pointed out that military service is not like other occupations in which an employee works a set number of hours per day, usually to no great risk to life or limb. Military service — with its long workdays, physically-demanding training and daily duties, coupled with numerous deployments in high-stress environments — can take a heavy toll on the service member’s mind and body. Quality medical treatment and just compensation for permanent, service-connected injuries and illnesses are the only right thing to do, given the service and sacrifice military members give their country, he said.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, www.va.gov, there are about 23 million veterans in the United States. While fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population currently is serving in the active military, Guard or Reserve, about
7 percent of Americans are veterans. The VA projects the number of veterans will drop to about 15 million by 2036, due to older veterans passing away.
Thomas said several VA representatives took part in the task force’s first meeting. They listened to and asked questions about the mayors’ concerns on veterans issues, he said. He said he felt like they were really interested in hearing what the mayors had to say and wanted to work with them to help the veterans in their cities.
“I was appointed to the task force last year during the mayors’ conference in Orlando,” Thomas said, noting that during that year, he thought about what issues the task force should address. “I think we’ll continue to look at how we can best help our veterans in our communities and nationwide. And we’ll continue to engage with the VA to ensure they provide the best care for our veterans.”
According to its website, www.usmayors.org, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is an official non-partisan organization for cities with populations that exceed 30,000. The organization links mayors to urban policy information and political news.