Veterans and their families make up one-third of South Carolina’s population. And with so many troops returning home after multiple deployments during 14 years of constant war, the need for assistance for those veterans and their families is increasing.
Services from suicide prevention to housing are available from numerous sources, including private providers and the federal government. But finding access to those services can prove a labyrinth for veterans to navigate.
Consolidating and streamlining that access is the role of a newly expanded joint legislative committee that met for the first time Tuesday. Formed in May, the committee has been expanded to include appointees by Gov. Nikki Haley and Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state’s adjutant general, to show the state’s highest level of commitment to the issue, said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.
“We need to have a longstanding and continued focus on the needs of our veterans,” said Smith, a major in the S.C. Guard and a combat veteran in Afghanistan.
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The committee initially focused mainly on the need for nursing home care and other housing issues for aging veterans. But with the new heft of the S.C. Guard and the governor’s office, the committee plans to tackle such issues as veterans’ employment, eliminating redundancy of services and establishing “one-stop shopping” for veterans’ services.
“We have a lot of great programs in South Carolina,” said Col. Ronald Taylor, one of Livingston’s appointees to the 12-person committee. “We have a lot of great people. But we need to create that one entity where a person can walk in and get assistance.”
Complicating the process, however, is that each county has its own veterans’ affairs office. Those offices are appointed by the legislative delegations and funded by the individual counties.
As a result, no state oversight exists, even from the S.C. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the delivery of services varies dramatically from county to county, committee members said.
Some committee members advocated a system of centers based on congressional districts to coordinate the county offices. Others said the state veterans affairs department should be expanded and given more power over the county offices.
“Right now they are holding an empty gun,” state Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, said of the state office. “We need to give them some bullets for that gun.”
Veterans in South Carolina
36,000 — Number of veterans in Lexington County
430,000 — Veterans in South Carolina
1.3 million — S.C. veterans and their families
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Veterans Affairs