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An opportune time for veterans' voices to unite

The military veterans of Citrus County represent every branch of the armed forces and can proudly claim to have served in every major conflict from the European and Pacific theaters of World War II to the wind-swept deserts of the Middle East.

Today, the veterans face a different kind of struggle against an opponent that should be considered an ally. Having lived up to their end of the bargain they made with their country, the veterans now want the government to meet its full obligations to them.

It is not an unreasonable request. It is shameful that these men and women are forced to fight for benefits that have been promised and that they have earned.

But that is the situation facing the more than 24,000 veterans living in Citrus County. After many years of fighting these battles individually, the veterans are joining forces to speak with a louder and stronger voice.

On Monday, about 200 veterans obeyed a fundamental law of the military _ there is strength in numbers _ and decided to form a coalition of veterans' groups and unaffiliated former service personnel that will press for better services for all veterans.

It is an idea that has been tried here before, without much success. But similar coalitions have been effective elsewhere in the state, the veterans were told. If Citrus County can get a coalition off the ground, it could combine with those already existing around Florida, significantly increasing the vets' clout.

In a state such as Florida, with its tremendous numbers of retirees who are veterans, there is no telling what can be accomplished. Politicians are well aware of the number of veterans now residing in the state and the indisputable political reality that veterans vote.

The first challenge has been met. Representatives of almost all the 58 veterans organizations in Citrus County have shown an interest in forming the coalition. On Monday, 123 people signed up to be on the steering committee of the new group.

The next hurdle will be to create a manageable structure for the group. A steering committee that large could prove to be unwieldy. Plus, the 200 or so veterans who attended the formation session are a fraction of the 24,000 veterans in Citrus. While most share the same complaints and problems, there is the potential for the coalition to become sidetracked on any one of a number of individual issues and causes.

The coalition will require strong leadership and coordination to succeed. But who is better prepared for such an undertaking than men and women who have served in the armed forces?

Topping the list of local concerns is how to improve access to medical care. Local veterans are urging elected officials to expand the services provided at the small Veterans Affairs clinic in Inverness.

The federal government already has acknowledged that demand has far outstripped supply at the clinic and has given permission to explore expansion alternatives. That initiative dovetails nicely with Citrus County's interest in purchasing the former Heritage Hospital site off County Road 491 in Beverly Hills.

If the county acquires the property, the building could house not only various county veteran-related services but also an expanded VA clinic and possibly a nursing facility for veterans. County commissioners are expected to get an update on the appraisals at their meeting next week and county staff could get the go-ahead to begin negotiations for the purchase at that time.

From the new coalition and the recently dedicated Fallen Heroes memorial at Bicentennial Park to the likelihood of an expanded clinic and one-stop government service center, this is an exciting time for veterans in Citrus County.