Presenting services to veterans as a team effort, the Missouri Veterans Commission brought a statewide listening tour to Cape Girardeau and with it more than two dozen representatives of federal, state and private organizations dedicated to those who served in the armed forces.
For nearly two hours Thursday evening at Louis K. Juden American Legion Post 63, they explained the best ways to access benefits and discussed how the roles of private veterans groups meshed with the mission of the veterans commission and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The town hall included a question-and-answer period where issues ranged from the definition of a veteran -- it varies depending on the program -- to lost service records.
"We have no preconceived notion or idea," Larry D. Kay, executive director of the commission, said before beginning the program. "We just actually want to hear what they have to say. We want to make sense of their concerns and then prioritize."
When the 21-city tour is complete -- the next stop is Monday in Ste. Genevieve, Mo. -- the commission will prepare a report for Gov. Jay Nixon that will be ready after Veterans Day, Kay said.
The Missouri Veterans Commission operates the state veterans cemeteries and the veterans nursing homes, including the one in Cape Girardeau. It also has more than 50 field service officers who work with veterans to help them understand the eligibility rules for state and federal programs, rules that can differ depending on the service being sought.
Former state representative Jack Jackson, a combat pilot who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War and spent 23 years as a test pilot for Boeing, told about 50 veterans on hand the benefits are not handouts but entitlements based on service.
"Our nation asked of us two things: No. 1, that our blood be red, and No. 2, that we work hard," Jackson said. In return, medical care, pensions, education benefits and home loans are just part of what the nation offers in return, he said.
The commission and other representatives, he said, "are here tonight to help us obtain what we have earned."
Who qualifies as a veteran differs from program to program. For most state-sponsored programs, the answer is either two years of active military service or 20 years in the National Guard or reserve forces. For most federal programs, the service must be in the active military. Members of the National Guard or reserve are eligible only if they were called to national service under a presidential executive order.
Eligibility for some veterans benefits, such as medical care, are based on income or injury suffered while in the armed forces. For other benefits, such as pensions or home loans, eligibility can be based on length of service.
Having the town hall forum at the Legion post helped put the concerns of Southeast Missouri veterans on the record, post commander Sheryl Smith said. The legion is focused on the needs of aging veterans of Korea and Vietnam as well as the issues for young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.
"We have more returning home with post traumatic stress and brain injuries," Smith said. "They need help."
2731 Thomas Drive, Cape Girardeau, Mo.