Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Lottery Game Ends Veterans’ Annual Fight for Trust Funding

For many Iowa veterans, the war-front follows them home, where they have to battle for benefits already promised to them by the government through the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund (VTF). The annual battle came to an end last week when the Iowa Lottery introduced the first of four games, Stars & Stripes, that will directly benefit the fund.

“We’re very excited about having a sustainable, annual funding source for the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund,” Kent Hartwig, legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Iowa Independent in a telephone interview. “The response from the veterans who have received assistance from this fund has been tremendous, and this will go a long way furthering our ability to help veterans who are in need.”

To help bridge monetary gaps in federal benefits, lawmakers created the VTF in 2003 with the intent of giving the state flexibility with regard to Iowa's returning veterans and their families, in particular issues that aren't covered by federal funding such as job training, unemployment assistance, travel expenses for wounded veterans related to follow-up medical care, nursing home care, counseling programs and honor guard services.

Moreover, lawmakers intended for the VTF to eventually contain $50 million in 10 years, but only $5 million has been appropriated to the fund thus far, and Gov. Chet Culver's 2008 budget did not contain any additional revenue for the fund.

To fill the gap left in Culver’s budget, Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, sponsored legislation, House File 2359, earlier this year that authorized the lottery games and appropriated the funds to the VTF. The new lottery games are estimated to generate up to $3 million a year for the trust fund at a minimal impact on the general fund.

“The trust fund was created to assist veterans and their dependents who slip through the cracks of the federal system," Bailey said on the House floor in March. "As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, those cracks become more and more apparent. As a state we have an obligation, a sacred obligation, to ensure that our veterans are taken care of when they come home. That means picking up the slack for the federal government when it lets our veterans down."

Even though Culver did not budget money for the VTF this year, he did sign the bill into law March 11, thus guaranteeing funding by removing appropriations from lawmakers and placing it in the hands of the Iowa Lottery.

“We have developed a good partnership with the Iowa Lottery,” Hartwig said. “This funding stream is a good way of doing it because it is outside the General Assembly. Before the VTF was appropriated on an annual basis, and now the lottery funds will go directly into the trust fund.”

“With the lottery, we are guaranteed to receive some amount of money every year; granted, this will vary depending on sales,” Hartwig said. “But now this is something we can count on annually to help grow the principal balance. Since we can only spend the interest, when the fund stays at $5 million, we are not able to expand our program.”

Hartwig said the VTF has given out over $100,000 since December, the biggest draw assisting unemployed veterans with service-related disabilities, who have seen gaps in their federal funding.

Moreover, Hartwig sees the IDVA’s new relationship with the Iowa Lottery as a plus, because it helps get the organization’s name out, marketing it through the tickets, which include the IDVA’s contact number at the top of every ticket. “For us, the lottery puts a spotlight on our organization. It creates a win-win situation (see below), especially since we don’t quite have the marketing resources as the Iowa Lottery.”

Benefits for veterans outweigh gambling concerns

The government’s growing dependency on using gambling revenues as a source of funding programs such as the VTF have sparked some concerns among those who deal with the negative effects of gambling.

“The new game is in line with the mission of the Iowa Lottery in terms of help and funding that is available,” Mark Vander Linden, head of the Iowa Department of Health’s Gambling Treatment and Prevention program, told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “All states, except Alaska and Hawaii, have some sort of gambling. I think how Iowa chooses to addresses people who get into trouble because of gambling is probably one of the more progressive, especially in terms of using the revenues coming in from gambling to help those who are negatively affected by gambling.”

One-half of one percent of the gross revenues generated from the Iowa Lottery are earmarked for gambling treatment programs, including the 1-800-BETSOFF hotline run through Vander Linden’s office.

“The number of clients that we serve on the help line related to lottery gambling are relatively small,” Vander Linden said. “I don’t anticipate that this new scratch-off ticket is different enough to cause an increase in calls.”

However, Amy Kluver, a gambling treatment counselor at Problem Gambling Services, argues that lottery and scratch tickets may be part of a larger problem. “People think that taking care of the casino is the big issue, but there are definitely people who struggle with scratch tickets and pull tabs on a daily basis,” Kluver told the Iowa Independent in a telephone interview.

“Merging support for veterans with lottery tickets is an unfortunate aspect from our perspective,” Kluver said. “Our clients, who already have gambling problems, don’t need another reason or excuse to go out and buy another scratch ticket. They can certainly find enough reasons or excuses on their own, and this will merely supply them another reason.”

“Thankfully, not everyone has a gambling problem; it is just unfortunate that we have to turn to the lottery, especially from a gambling treatment counselor’s perspective, who sees people fueled by these types of addictions,” Kluver said. “It is unfortunate that veterans are not getting the care and service they deserve and should be getting, without having to depend on the lottery.”

Kluver, however, said that the state of Iowa is lucky that does have a program it can turn to increase funding for veterans they need. “I realize it’s not possible to find a program that makes everyone happy,” Kluver said. “But if people really want to help veterans, then they should donate money directly to them, which would be better than going out to buy a bunch of scratch tickets.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Iowa Vets Finally Have a Place to Rest in Peace

Since March 2003, 67 soldiers with Iowa ties have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now, thanks to the recent dedication of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery (IVC) in Van Meter, Iowa’s latest fallen soldiers will have a final resting place in Iowa, where family and friends can pay their respects.

“This cemetery will be a fitting and honorable resting place for veterans who sacrificed so much for our freedom,” Gov. Chet Culver said in a statement prior to the dedication ceremony. “Every day will be Memorial Day and Veterans Day at this place of reverence.”

“The Department is extremely excited about the opening of the cemetery,” Patrick Palmersheim, Executive Director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement. “We are grateful for the support of the Federal [Veterans Administration], Governor Culver, former Governor [Tom] Vilsack, the Iowa Legislature, and all the Veteran service organizations for making this dream a reality.”

The official dedication of the IVC took place Thursday and was attended by a number of Iowa’s political dignitaries, including Culver, Vilsack and Sen. Chuck Grassley,
who helped procure $7.6 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs State Cemetery Grant Program for the veterans cemetery.

“Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country deserve a proper place for remembrance in their home state,” Grassley said in a statement earlier this year. “This cemetery will provide family, friends, and fellow Iowans with an opportunity to pay their respects to our fallen soldiers.”

The IVC is the first federally funded construction of a state-owned and –operated veterans cemetery in the state of Iowa. The cemetery serves the veteran population throughout the state and around the country, as there is no state residency requirement to be interred. Honorably discharged veterans are eligible for interment at the cemetery at no cost; the spouse of a veteran can be interred for a cost of $300. Ultimately, the IVC will provide burial space for up to 80,000 burials. Thus far, over 1,000 veterans and eligible dependents have already been determined eligible.

In 2001, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) study identified Iowa as needing a dedicated, state-owned and –operated veterans cemetery. The study counted over 280,000 veterans living in Iowa, with about 92,000 living within a 75-mile radius of Des Moines. This study triggered Iowa’s political leaders to get involved and help procure the necessary funding to help build, maintain and operate the cemetery.

The Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) began fundraising for the cemetery on Veterans Day 2004 with the sale of Bronze and Silver Iowa Veteran Commemorative Medals. In 2005, Iowa’s legislature gave IDVA the authority to “establish and operate” a state veterans cemetery.

Construction of the IVC began in July 2007, on 100 acres of land donated by the Knapp and Kenyon families. The first phase of construction has developed 40 acres that will provide for approximately 20 years of operation.

“It is an honor and privilege to serve as the director of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery,” Director Steve Young said in a statement. “Our goal for this facility is to provide first-class, respectful service so that our veterans and their families will be remembered in perpetuity.”

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Flood 2008: Guard Passes Readiness Test at Home

In the wake of multiple deployments to war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials have been concerned about the Iowa National Guard’s readiness at home. These concerns were met head-on with the recent flooding in Iowa, which Gov. Chet Culver claimed was the biggest natural disaster in Iowa’s history.

“The response to the floods was a very visible example of the readiness level we maintain,” Iowa National Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood told the Iowa Independent during a phone interview. “The way we think about it is that readiness is our No. 1 job in the Iowa National Guard. If we are ready to go do a federal mission, which means going in to combat, we feel that we can respond to whatever is asked of us in the state of Iowa.”

The Iowa National Guard, in conjunction with the governor's office and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and many local, state and federal entities, has been providing assistance, coordination and planning, in support of flood relief operations across the state of Iowa. More than 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties have been declared state disaster areas.

Just over 4,000 Iowa guardsmen and airmen have been activated during the ongoing response to the flooding. Currently, 9,400 men and women serve in the Iowa National Guard, 1,500 of whom are currently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations outside of Iowa.

Citizen soldiers recently returning from combat duty in Iraq found themselves cast into new roles with activations at home. “This was something different for them and gave them an incredible sense of pride to help their fellow Iowans right here at home,” Hapgood said. “Those who deployed recently talked about how they were able to help people in countries far away and it was rewarding to provide these same services at home.”

These soldiers were not the only ones cast into new roles. Members of the 34th Army Band out of Fairfieldfound themselves putting their instruments aside and mobilizing north to the flooding in Iowa City and Coralville. Spc. Amy Wymore and Spc. Joshua Clayworth volunteered for deployment June 12, three days before the rest of the unit was officially activated and deployed to the Iowa City area. It was the first time either one of them had been activated since joining the Guard in December 2004.

“I was more than happy to volunteer for this duty, because when it comes down to it, we are all Iowans, and I’m proud to do whatever I can to help out,” Clayworth, who plays the guitar for the 34th, told the Iowa Independent June 16 in Coralville.

Wymore, who plays the flute and piccolo for the 34th, volunteered for duty, despite starting a new internship. “I have a lot going on right now with my new job, and I knew it would be easy to say 'no' and look the other way, but I really wanted to help people out in their time of need,” Wymore said. “After all, that’s the reason why I signed up for the National Guard in the first place.” She said her new employers were very supportive of her decision to volunteer for flood relief operations.

Spc. Clayworth (left) and Spc. Wymore (right) were assigned to keep civilian traffic to a minimum, diverting them away from the flooded HW 6 in Coralville and making sure boaters had a permit from the City of Coralville.

Flood response provides learning opportunity

The Guard’s mission in the flood operation took on multiple facets, including a planning component for future operations. “For us,it was all about trying to forecast what the future will bring and then try to project the correct number of forces, equipment and vehicles we will need for future operations,” Hapgood said. “We are trying to foresee what problems future floods might bring or what we might be asked to do in similar circumstances.”

Moreover, the Guard drew from experiences in previous natural disasters, namely the floods of ’93, as well as combat missions to apply what they have already learned. “We used some of the lessons we have learned in combat to actually fight the floods,” Hapgood said.

For example, Hapgood cited the Guard’s use of the HESCO barriers as a tangible example of lessons learned in combat that were applicable to flooding operations. “Our engineers used these in Iraq to protect buildings and other facilities form improvised explosive devices,” Hapgood said. “We used HESCOs extensively in Ottumwa to keep water out, in particular at the water treatment plant. Not only were they very effective, but we never used them in this type of application and they were much easier to install than we previously thought.”

On a final note, Hapgood noted that the recent response to the flooding gave Iowans a sense of security to see how many forces we have here right at home ready to help out. “The support we received from the communities was unparalleled,” Hapgood said. “We saw the goodness of people, and we saw how people bonded together. This made you feel that we really do live in a special place.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

‘In Their Boots’ Series Kicks Off Tonight

As media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to decline, Brave New Films has stepped up its online efforts to help bring the war home.

The weekly web documentary series, “In Their Boots,” is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact fund (IADIF), produced by Brave New Foundation (BNF), and will be live-streamed beginning tonight at 6 p.m. (CST).

The online show will broadcast a new episode every Wednesday and will feature Iraq and Afghanistan service men and women and their families, who share how their lives have been impacted by these ongoing wars.

Then, in a live forum the series host, Jan Bender, will interview the participants and lead a discussion that includes experts, service-providers and individual viewers in an interactive discussion of the issues raised. Bender is a veteran of the war in Iraq who served as a rifleman/combat correspondent in Iraq with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines from 2004 to 2005.

“In Their Boots” Trailer

The idea for the new series stemmed from a conversation between Jim Miller of BNF and a supporter, which Miller documents in an e-mail message sent out to other supporters:

Last summer I got a call from someone who had seen some of our past work. She started off being extremely complimentary about the issues we were bringing to light, marveling at how widely we were able to distribute our short videos to not only inform, but to motivate viewers to take action. She then asked if Brave New Foundation would be interested in taking on a large project to help amplify the stories of a group of Americans whose efforts and sacrifices weren't being acknowledged. She warned me that it would be a difficult task since it only directly affected less than 1% of the US population.

Being a bit headstrong (even in my middle age), I said that no task was too difficult. If there is an injustice, we could tackle it and help to make it right! But what she wanted was difficult. The task we took on was to tell the stories of servicemembers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the past several months, as we gathered our staff and began to meet the men and women who have served, we knew that it would be a privilege to be able to share the stories of these servicemembers and their families so that the other 99% of the US population can better understand what is happening to our troops when they return from war.