About 10 attendees came out Tuesday evening to voice their opinions on the needs of veterans and military families during a roundtable discussion with state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway.
The event was hosted by the Georgia House Democratic Caucus at the Liberty County Courthouse Annex as part of the party’s “A Promise Kept” initiative, which is touring throughout the state’s military communities.
According to a news release, Georgia has “10 active military installations, more than 750,000 veterans, and over 150,000 active-duty military and civilian personnel.” The goal was to gather information about issues facing local military families and veterans before the start of the next legislative session in January.
Williams said he was there to listen.
“Want to hear what your thoughts are as it relates to veterans,” he said. “What it is that you either would like to see continued, would like to see done, what can be done to better help the veterans of our area?”
Williams later added, “So we want to hear from those of you that are directly impacted. What it is that we as legislators can do to better represent you as veterans?”
During the meeting, Williams said Liberty County “has the highest percentage of military population of any county in Georgia. Seventy-one percent of our population is either directly involved with veterans or active duty. There’s no other (similar) county in Georgia.”
P.J. Schneider, an Army veteran who recently worked as a regional coordinator for several regional economic development authorities, discussed the employment of military veterans returning to Georgia and keeping veterans who are currently stationed in the state.
Schneider’s biggest concern was making sure more military occupations, experience and training translated into Georgia professional licenses and certificates once veterans return to or stay in Georgia.
“And the key thing that’s going to keep them here and have them come back is suitable employment,” he said.
Schneider talked about his own experience of leaving the Army in 1993 with years of training in engineering and then teaching engineering at a graduate level in an accredited program at a Department of Defense school.
But, “When I left the service, I could not be an engineer,” he said.
When he explored the possibility of gaining a teaching license, he talked with a local college recruiter and discovered that he would need to take and pay for two tests and then go through a year of student teaching.
“I was teaching at the graduate level,” he replied to Williams, who had responded in disbelief. “Now they want me to be a student teacher.”
Schneider said he hopes that the state Legislature will expand on House Bill 188, which currently allows service members who have training and experience in five specialties in construction that meet or exceed Georgia’s requirements to receive a license or certification. It also applies to military spouses with a background in the construction field. Schneider wants to open it to more military occupations.
“We should be able to take a look at our certificate requirements that the secretary of state has, match those up with the military occupations, and say if you fit any of these fields, you can present that to the secretary of state, and we should be able to award the certificate or license. Period,” he said.
Williams said it was tough because of the price tag, but Schneider also recommended, based on what other states were doing for returning veterans, that military retirement pay be exempted from state taxes. Williams said that that would cost the state $50 million, but if it came to the House floor for a vote, he would be supportive of it.
John C. Littles, Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committee chair of the Georgia NAACP, said he is working to create a veterans service committee for every local branch of the NAACP in Georgia so they can partner with local veterans organizations to inform veterans of the services and benefits that are available to them.
“When I go out into the community, even here in Hinesville, with all these different events they got here and all these different organizations here, you got people that don’t even know what they qualify for,” Littles said.
He said the concept of having the NAACP and local veterans groups meet once a month in a forum with a group of veterans to discuss their benefits is currently working in Statesboro.
Williams concluded by saying that constituents who have any issues can call him to voice their concerns.