Veterans focus on benefits
The New Mexico Secretary of Veterans Affairs has agreed to work with the Clovis United Veterans Council to draft a letter to Gov. Bill Richardson asking that he endorse “concurrent receipt” of military retiree pensions and disability benefits.
Veterans Affairs Secretary John Garcia met with veterans in Clovis Saturday afternoon.
Obtaining concurrent receipt of benefits has been a major goal of many veterans organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Federal law prevents retired veterans from receiving both retirement pay and disability benefits. For every dollar received in disability pay, a military retirement pension is cut by an equal amount.
That’s not fair, according to Rick Robertson of Clovis, who asked Garcia to lobby Richardson on the subject. Changing the law would require federal legislation, but Robertson said New Mexico could go on record supporting the change.
“I can only handle state issues myself, but I can advocate for you with Washington on federal issues,” Garcia said.
Medical issues took up much of the meeting. Garcia said he wanted to hear ideas on how his office could help veterans and the veterans at the meeting asked Garcia what his new cabinet-level post could do for them.
“This base used to have a 100-bed hospital. They now have an outpatient facility, but that doesn’t help the problem either,” said Harrie Black of Portales. “You can’t get an appointment to see anyone for three months, and by that time you’ll either have your problem over with or you’ll be dead.”
Garcia reminded his audience that his office cannot change federal Veterans Administration policies. However, it can help veterans negotiate the bureaucracy to claim benefits they are provided under federal law.
According to Garcia, New Mexico has about 188,000 veterans but that isn’t always reflected in state policies.
“We are not a veteran-friendly state,” Garcia said. “We veterans have got to start coming together and doing what is right for the vets.”
Garcia said recent improvements in state policy include upgrading veterans issues to a cabinet-level department, providing free college tuition to any Vietnam veteran who has lived in New Mexico more than 10 years, increasing the veteran’s state property tax exemption from $2,000 to $4,000, and providing a high school diploma to World War II veterans who left school to serve in the military.
“A lot of these guys came right off the farm and they got back from World War II and had to go back to the farm and couldn’t get their high school diploma,” Garcia said. “It may not be much, but hey, at least it’s something.”