The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 5, 2012

Lawmakers seek input from veterans

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

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One way to find out what is on the mind of West Virginia’s veterans population is to go directly to the source.

And that is exactly what the Legislature is doing in a special survey, available either online or via a toll-free telephone interview, in an attempt to see how they feel about a variety of topics from health issues, military duty, government benefits — even down to their personal religious views.

Postcards went out to some 8,000 military types from all eras, ages and services, asking them to help lawmakers prepare legislation that would be beneficial to them.

“This is a unique opportunity for service members to tell us about the great resources out there, as well as the obstacles they face,” says Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, chair of the Senate Military Committee, a lieutenant commander in the Navy with a tour of duty in Afghanistan under his belt.

“The Legislature wants to know what works and what doesn’t work for service members in all corners of our state.”

The survey is some 150 pages in length, accessible at www.wvmilitarysurvey.com, or by calling 1-855-299-6605 to set up an interview.

Not only is the data they supply helpful to key lawmakers, but it can be personally rewarding, as well. Participants are entered into a drawing for VISA cash gifts, ranging from one $500 card, five $100 ones, and 30 of $50 denomination.

Four years ago, lawmakers shipped out surveys to some 6,000 veterans of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

“Back in 2007, horror stories in the media about the treatment of wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan prompted the Legislature to study whether our state was doing everything we could to help them,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who chairs an interims committee dedicated to veterans issues.

“We figured the best way to find out what was needed was to ask veterans themselves.”

In West Virginia, there should be no dearth of responses.

An Internet source ranks the state seventh in the nation in the percentage of population with veterans — 13.8 percent.

Alaska tops the list at 16.2 percent. Other states ranked above West Virginia are Montana, 15.1 percent, Maine, 14.5, Virginia, 14.2, Wyoming, 14.1, and Oklahoma, 14. Rounding out the Top Ten are Washington, 13.7 percent, then Arkansas and South Dakota, tied at 13.6.

The survey poses a variety of questions, such as type of employment and what, if any, government benefits are being paid.

One question asks veterans to rate levels of worry (if they did) in the past year about food, rent or mortgage, clothing, gas, utilities, medical bills, pets or school.

Veterans are asked to identify the type(s) of telephone owned, such as land line, basic cell phone, the so-called “smart phone” and computer.

Do the veterans have a valid driver’s license? Passport? Immigration or naturalization papers? Medical insurance card? A last will, or a living will?

In the spiritual arena, the questionnaire asks veterans in which category do they most identify themselves — Protestant, Catholic, historical black churches, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian, New Age, agnostic, atheist, “spiritual but not religious,” or “free thinker.”

How do you feel about God and country? the survey poses.

Among answers are:

America is a better country than most other counties. My time in the military strengthened my loyalty to America. When I have problems, I can find spiritual peace within me. I can feel the presence of God in my life.

Another question digs into personal relationships, with these types of questions:

If a friend of co-worker got an award, I would feel proud. I rely on myself most of the time. I rarely rely on other people. It is my duty to take care of my family, even when I have to sacrifice what I want. I feel good when I work together with others.

Within the past year, the survey asks how many hours veterans spent helping a neighbor, a food assistance group, a stranger in the community, a youth sports organization or a disaster relief effort. Or a church, theatrical or political group.

The questionnaire also seeks to know how often veterans vote in local and state elections, and the extent of their education.

Veterans are also asked to rate their general health on a 10-point scale from very poor to excellent.

Another portion calls on veterans to rate on a similar scale their quality of life in childhood, a year before putting on a uniform, their entire stay in the military, a year after discharge and the present.

“We need service members to share their experiences so that we can work together as a state to provide them with the critical support and resources they need and deserve,” explained Delegate Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and himself a former soldier.

“The Legislature is sincere about making changes for a better West Virginia to truly honor our veterans and service members.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com