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Benefits, suicide and everything in between: Crist, Bilirakis host meeting on veterans issues

Congressman Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) and Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor) recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a Bipartisan Congressional Veterans Advisory Board meeting at the Dunedin Public Library on Monday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   Times]
Congressman Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) and Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor) recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a Bipartisan Congressional Veterans Advisory Board meeting at the Dunedin Public Library on Monday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

DUNEDIN — Veteran burial benefits can differ depending on whether a veteran dies in a VA hospital or at home. Use of alternative therapies in lieu of prescription medication can impact veteran disability ratings. National statistics on veteran suicide come from outdated and limited data-sets.

These were some of the talking points Monday at the inaugural joint meeting between the veteran advisory boards of local Congressmen Charlie Crist and Gus Bilirakis.

Organized by Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, the meeting aimed to offer both legislators a chance to hear proposals and recommendations from local veteran leaders on everything from veteran health care needs to improvements in transitioning to civilian life programs.

"We get the best ideas from you," Bilirakis told the vets, who met Monday afternoon at the Dunedin Library.

The advisory boards, led by veterans Carol Barkalow and Frank Chicollo, meet regularly to study local and national concerns affecting Tampa Bay veterans.

For instance, many issues affecting the veteran population, such as mental health and homelessness, can be addressed early on as military service members undergo transition training.

As noted at Monday's meeting, depending on a service member's branch and rank, training can be limited to two days or two weeks with either too much or too little information given at one time. That creates knowledge gaps, board members said, about what resources are available for health care, employment, housing and more.

"The younger veterans do not see the resources out there," said Wally Tyson, a member of Bilirakis's Transition to Civilian Life Task Force.

One of the recommendations proposed Monday calls for creating a uniform, mandatory, transition training program that would last at least a year to give service members more time to process the information. The program also would incorporate mental health assessment training for dependents and would get more direct involvement from VA officials.

Other recommendations include:

• A request for better national data collection and data analysis of veteran suicides to get a more comprehensive sense of how many cases there are and the circumstances surrounding these deaths.

• A request for state funding for more affordable housing options for veterans.

• A request for uniform, automatic allotment of benefits following a veterans' non-service connected death, including in the cases of suicide.

"It's not a bipartisan issue, it's nonpartisan," Crist said.

Nonprofit leaders and Department of Veteran Affairs representatives were also there to weigh in on services they provide and how Congress can help expand or fine-tune available resources. These include the Yellow Ribbon Network, which uses algorithms to direct veterans to appropriate organizations for help.

Advisory board leaders hope such joint sessions will continue in the near future.

Contact Ileana Najarro at inajarro@tampabay.com. Follow @IleanaNajarro

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