• Megann Horstead

Veterans benefits focus of Congressman Bobby Rush’s forum


Veterans Day is observed annually by the nation’s people to honor the many men and women who have served. So often, veterans do not get the credit they deserve for their sacrifices the remaining days of the calendar year. What’s more is the freedom people are afforded comes at a cost to the many men and women who have served.

With Veterans Day approaching, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) invited veterans, community leaders from various veterans’ non-profit organizations and governmental agencies to take part in his Nov. 3 event, dubbed Thank You for Your Service—Veterans Benefits Forum.

The event, held at Pipe Fitters’ Training Center Local Union No. 597 in Mokena, provided an opportunity for veterans to learn and ask questions about benefits and support services offered by governmental agencies and non-profit organizations.

Several veterans who attended the forum shared frustrations with the process of gaining access to various forms of assistance.

From competition between medical centers to perception problems concerning the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are a number of challenges for organizations and agencies supporting the needs of the many men and women who have served.

Rush—who serves as a member on the Congressional Veterans Job Caucus, where he works with others to try to introduce legislation, educate of members of Congress and serve as a public advocate for the issues they support—could not be in attendance for the forum, but some representative from his office were on hand.

“We know these issues are tough,” said Robyn Wheeler Grange, district director for Rush. “I would never dream of speaking for these wonderful service members—but I think that the frustration you’re hearing has nothing to do with [the agencies and non-profit organizations,] but it has a lot to do with the structures and the systems. We want to be partners with you in any way that we can. Please utilize our office. Just as much as we want you the vets to utilize our office, we hope that the agencies will utilize us, as well, for anything that you might need.”

Rick Fox—who serves as public affairs officer for Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital—wanted people to know a number of changes have been implemented at the facility under the leadership of Steve Braverman, the new hospital director.

Access to care had commonly served as an issue turning away people who called in and experienced long wait times. Prioritizing a reduction has given Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital staff the ability to assist more veterans.

“[Braverman’s] come in, and he’s put together a strategic plan, and our strategic plans aligns with five priorities that [U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs] Dr. [David] Shulkin has in place,” Fox said. “A couple of those other priorities include choice, so in addition to just getting in on time, it’s going to be your choice.”

Congress has a new piece of legislation to vote on, in which Dr. Shulkin is backing to give people greater options in terms of access to care. That measure, if approved, will remove the 40-mile radius one must live from a facility and the 30-day wait period for living outside those limits.

Will James—who serves as acting director of Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center—acknowledged the issues the organization faces and took a moment to clear up the notion that veterans do not get the respect they are owed for sacrificing their lives, unless it is Veterans Day.

“It’s Veterans Day every day,” he said. “Don’t let nobody tell you it’s one day out of the year.”

The Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center serves as one of the largest healthcare systems providing a variety of supports, ranging from medical, surgical, neurological, mental health and long-term care services.

James said obtaining public input is key to improving the assistance they offer.

“Some of our input needs to come from you,” he said. “We [don’]t have all the issues that’s going on when you’re just talking to yourself [and] complaining, and you don’t let us know. We don’t know how to fix it. This is your [Veterans Affairs,] not our [Veterans Affairs.] The directors implemented a new program. Every Thursday, we have a open-door policy for employees and veterans.”

Wheeler Grange wanted to thank Erica Jeffries, director of Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs; Rick Fox, public affairs officer of Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital; Will James, acting associate director of Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center; Ruthie Grezlik, veterans service center manager of Veterans Affairs Regional Office Chicago; Kristina McNichol, superintendent of Will County Veterans Assistance Commission; Vicki Bunn, manager of veterans advancement services of Volunteers of America; and David Brown, veterans outreach specialist of Chicago Vet Center.

“On behalf of the congressman, we really appreciate you,” she said.

Wheeler Grange presented a letter on congressional letterhead in recognition of every veteran in attendance for the forum.

“I just want you to know the congressman, though he could not be here, he wanted you to leave knowing that he really wanted to be here,” she said.

#Mokena

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