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Pandemic takes toll on services for veterans

The Veterans Administration center in Bonham serves a rural area with increasing suburbanization to the west and southwest.
KETR
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The Veterans Administration center in Bonham serves a rural area with increasing suburbanization to the west and southwest.

Many of Northeast Texas’s veterans have seen their share of combat and some of them have paid for it with serious – even grievous – physical wounds.

Veterans’ emotional wounds are harder to identify and to treat, yet they remain part of the lives of the men and women who have gone to war for the country to which they all are devoted.

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic affected all aspects of life, including the various support services available for veterans.

In Fannin County, Bunker House, a Bonham residential center for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is no longer open. The pandemic forced the veterans who run the privately operated house to close it. The house’s fate remains unknown and uncertain.

COVID-19 took its toll on veterans’ services everywhere, according to the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4852 in Bonham, Bill Robinson, an Air Force veteran who served a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1972. “You can call and call and call the (Department of Veterans Affairs),” said Robinson. “But they aren’t answering the phone. It’s starting to come back slowly, but it’s nowhere near 100 percent,” he said.

The VFW makes itself available to help veterans with bill payments, issues such as rent or mortgages, Robinson said, but he added, “There’s really very little the VFW can do.” Robinson said his post “provides transportation” for veterans who need assistance to run certain errands, such as doctor’s appointments. “We can help a little here and there,” he said.

“Occasionally we hear about a veteran who needs money to pay an electricity or a water bill,” Robinson said. He explained that the VA “often would vet the individual” who is requesting assistance to determine whether his or her needs are legitimate.

“Then we hear that the word gets out that we’re offering money,” he said. Robinson added that isn’t the case, but the rumors start flying and “that brings out the worst in people. We have had to deal with con artists.”

He said, “The VA can investigate better than we can.”

Except that the pandemic has forced the Veterans Administration to scale back the services it offers.

Robinson said that “the VA is operating a retirement facility north (of Bonham),” but added that he has had trouble getting anyone there to respond to inquiries.

He told of a veteran from West Texas whose acquaintance he made. “This guy had one arm and no legs,” Robinson said. “He can’t talk to anybody,” Robinson complained. “They have a sign on the door” of the retirement home “that asks you to wear a mask” when entering. “But there’s no one in there,” he said.

“It’s not a pretty story,” Robinson lamented.

Robinson lives in Bonham and runs a storage business when he’s not trying to help fellow veterans navigate their way through their trials.

Not everyone was affected dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those who said he didn’t see much change in his daily operations is Paul Chandler, VA service officer who maintains an office at the VA’s Sam Rayburn Medical Center in Bonham.

Chandler, a Marine Corps veteran, said, “I didn’t experience a big professional change during COVID. I continued doing the same things that I normally do. There was a short time that I worked remotely, which required interfacing with my clients more through technology and less through person-to-person, but ultimately this was actually a pretty good learning experience in leveraging existing technologies for broader service.”

But the change was evident at some level, Chandler said.

“There appeared to be a drop-off of in-person client presentations when I first returned to the office, at least for a while, but I’m guessing that’s because people were trying to avoid exposure,” he explained.

Still, there might be some changes afoot as the VA considers its next move to streamline the services it gives to veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is considering a recommendation to move some of its operations from the Bonham medical center and will conduct a public hearing Tuesday night.

A press release from Fannin County Judge Randy Moore said the meeting will occur at the county’s Multipurpose Complex, at 700 FM 87 in Bonham. The release invites the public to meet with county and VA officials in what officials hope will be “an open and respectful discussion” regarding the potential changes at the Rayburn VA center.

The topic of the hearing will be recommendations offered by the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) commission on changes the VA is considering for the future. Officials are having to deal with criticism from citizens over possible closure of services at some clinics or the consolidation of services. The proposals, if they become policy, will take years to implement, according to VA documents. At least that is Chandler’s view, after meeting in a town hall recently with Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.

“McDonough emphasized that the AIR findings were simply recommendations,” Chandler said, “and that any final decision, if acted upon, would take likely 15 to 20 years to reach a final conclusion, as it travels through Congress to the president’s desk for final approval.”

Chandler added, “I am optimistic that the (VA) will continue to provide the full complement of services that it currently provides without any reduction or interruption to those services.”

That the recommendations are coming now – just as the nation is coming out of the COVID pandemic restrictions – is pure coincidence, according to Veterans Affairs officials.

The VA is considering whether to relocate some outpatient services from the Bonham clinic to other sites or possibly closing the Bonham VA Medical Center altogether, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website.

Therein lies the rub, say some observers about the pending possible changes in the VA’s North Texas operations. The changes aren’t made any easier to swallow given the suffering veterans and their families have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.