State Workers

Lawmakers laud direction of vets agency

The Department of Veterans Affairs has started several new programs this year, including meeting all injured Fort Lewis-based soldiers as they leave military service.

"In the face of the country being at war, and so many people returning as vets, it's difficult for a person like me to say things are going well," agency director John Lee said.

Lawmakers, however, were complimentary of the department's efforts to implement programs they funded in recent years. The House State Government Committee asked for an update from Lee on Friday.

"I think he's doing a good job, and we wanted to give him a chance to toot his horn," said committee chairman Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.

Among the department's new programs:

More services

A Veterans

An additional state

A registry

The Veterans Innovations program aimed at returnees includes two $1 million funds. One assists veterans' families in times of financial hardship with a $1,000 grant, and the other offers competitive grants intended to help veterans find jobs.

Spurred by reports of dismal conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Lee said the agency also has established a program with Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis.

"I began to think about what we as a state agency were doing at Fort Lewis. And the answer, quite frankly, was not much," Lee said.

Although the government offers "unbelievable" support for severely injured soldiers, there's far less support for those who leave service with less critical injuries, he added. The agency began a new program to monitor those injured soldiers and assist them.

"I have got two full-time staff assigned to Fort Lewis, and we will have personal, face-to-face conversations with each man and woman as they leave Fort Lewis in perpetuity," Lee said. "I want to do the same thing with the Navy."

The Veterans Conservation Corps, intended to help veterans with stress and mental health issues, has enrolled 300 people, according to the department. And construction on the Eastern Washington State Veteran's Cemetery, approved this year, is scheduled to begin in November of 2008.

A bill passed this year calls for a registry of veteran-owned businesses. It will be posted on the agency's Web site by the end of the month, Lee said.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said the agency's report seemed to show it was making good use of the new money it has been given.

"There's always a concern about the accountability," Chandler said. "In the review, the agency seems to have been very sensitive to that."