By Mary Alice Murphy

The evening of December 5, 2019, New Mexico Department of Veterans Services Cabinet Secretary Judy Griego, who has been in the position since January, visited the American Legion Post 18 Hall for a veterans' town hall.

"I took a good look at the department," Griego said. "In spite of the 60-day session, within three months I found that first, we weren't doing enough for veterans. Second, I discovered we have a dedicated staff, most of whom are veterans themselves. They're doing it to make a difference for veterans. And third, the size of the department is small. We have 59 people to cover 33 counties. We have personnel to cover public relations, support staff and auditors. We have only 17 veteran service officers throughout the state to work with the 157,000 veterans we have in New Mexico. My funding comes from the Legislature, and I have to show them where I spend it. Fifty-nine people does not do justice for our veterans. I want to hear some recommendations from you."

Frank Donohue of the Marine Corps League Detachment 1328 said mental health care had just been retired from the local programs. "Suicide rates are up across the country, and we are in the top five for suicide in New Mexico. Plus, those who have served as guardsmen, even though they go into combat, don't get much in the way of services. I was crying for help for all the veterans, and they ignored me. During deployment, before and after, the suicide rates are intense. When I see fellow soldiers take their own lives, it really hurts me. Those who transition as guardsmen receive limited support. I want to see help for those people who just went on deployment to Africa. Their mental health is not addressed."

"I don't disagree," Griego said. "Behavioral health is a big issue. New Mexico is No. 4 in suicide rates. The governor has allocated more money for behavioral health, but the federal Veterans Administration decides where to put the centers. (Major) Gen. (Kenneth) Nava (NM National Guard adjutant general) is working with the Department of Health making sure we sit with them and provide the resources. I think Gen. Nava is aware of the situation."

NM District 38 Rep. Rebecca Dow, who got the secretary to come to Silver City, asked: "Is there something we can do for you?"

One of the veterans said his deployment was hard for his wife, so he found some resources for her. "After I retired, we got into trouble, without the resources."

Griego said when a soldier retires, they need to check on services and resources within 30 days of retirement.

George Vargas of the DVS said suicide happens most often when the person feels alone. "We need to keep contact with them, so they don't feel alone."

Dow asked how anyone would know when they come back from deployment.

Chuck Wenzel asked why no veterans service officer was located in Grant County any longer. "The officer used to be right in this building, then they moved him to Santa Clara into the old Armory. He served Grant, Catron, Luna and Hidalgo counties. When we had one here, he would go to Reserve, Deming and Lordsburg. They moved him because the department didn't want to pay the $300 a month for everything in this building, including heat, electricity, and a place to meet with veterans."

"We are required to provide services, but we don't have the number of VSOs we need," Griego replied. "We had a $4.5 million budget last year; we have asked for additional manpower and funding. The plan for this area is to do more outreach. We haven't gone to Reserve in years."

John Sterle of the American Legion said the VSO comes only one day a month from Las Cruces from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. "We have been notified that it will increase to twice a month on the second and fourth Thursdays from 9:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. It would be nice if they would notify us two to three days ahead of time."

Vargas said it has been an issue of lack of communication. He handed out the schedule.

A woman in the audience noted that the American Legion posts their meeting schedule through social media, but not everyone looks at social media.

A man said he had called the Las Cruces office and no one answered every time he tried to call.

Griego noted that sometimes the Las Cruces office get 100 veterans at a time.

The same man said the system is obviously broken. "Why don't you use Paulo Veltri of the Veteran Resource Center at Western New Mexico University? He's trying to provide services not only for student veterans but all the veterans in the county."

David Morrison, the veterans' representative at the Workforce Solutions office in Silver City, said he sees several issues. "We lost our VSO, we lost our counselor, and the small VA clinic here is overburdened. Most of our veterans go to the Tucson VA, because it's closer and better than the Albuquerque VA hospital. A lot of people need help here. We need a VSO to be able to counsel. The Vietnam veterans used to meet, but they got no help here, except what they could do for their fellow veterans, Now, they have to go to Las Cruces, but there's only one counselor. We are a small community, but we have a lot of veterans. Our demographic area has been left out. I'm trying to do what I can on my own, but the health care for veterans here is not good. We need a counselor. We have Vietnam veterans dying, because there are not enough facilities in Truth or Consequences and only 40 beds here at Fort Bayard Medical Center. I have asked for a 200-bed facility for veterans here. Western New Mexico University has stepped up to have the small Veterans Resource Center, but it needs money to build its program. Intern counselors and social work interns are willing to counsel at the center. Old veterans need face-to-face counseling, not over a TV. A WNMU professor of nursing has helped start a program for physician assistants trained to serve veterans. If he can get a memorandum of understanding with the University of Arizona, he can get mental health professionals and put things into play."

Dow asked if there were a funding source for the WNMU center. "If it's not in the governor's budget, it won't get funding."

"I am relentlessly advocating," Morrison said. "I don't have any power, but together we can get things done. We have to start where we are. Can we get capital outlay?"

Griego said her department works closely with the VA. "My department is more about making sure you know about your benefits. We send the paperwork to file with the VA."

Dow said if a facility can be built, then it can bill for services through the state.

A woman said the VA Clinic here "is a waste of time. The VA has to declare an emergency. The nurse couldn't help us."

A man said he stopped going to the clinic 15 years ago. "I was scheduled to go to Albuquerque and was told I couldn't go to Tucson or El Paso. When I went to Albuquerque, I waited an hour and the nurse couldn't help. They made me wait longer but they weren't doing anything but talking among themselves. It takes money to buy competent people. All of these people working for you, but there is no accountability. I am trying to get 100 percent disability. People go through the motions, but they don't get anything done."

Dow said she was hearing accountability and productivity issues.

The same man said it has taken him seven years to get 100 percent disability. "I started going to Tucson and they had the red carpet out for all of us veterans."

Dow said she would try to get a representative from the VA Hospital in Albuquerque to visit Silver City to listen to the local concerns.

Another veteran said: "When we had a VSO here, we could get benefits, but we don't have any VA members here."

Donohue said a veterans' hot line goes to the White House. "Can't the VA and New Mexico get together to do something for its resident veterans? Tucson is so far ahead of Albuquerque."

Dow asked if the Choice Program was working for veterans.

She received a resounding No from the attendees.

A woman said she takes her husband to Tucson. "I'm his caregiver. I was trained in Arizona how to be a caregiver. You don't see that here. It's a program the VA needs to deal with. I had to get his benefits restored. I went to VA.gov and I had to advocate in order to protect him. Arizona is too crowded, but we have to go to Tucson and then to Safford to see his neurologist."

Dow asked if there were no Parkinsons' resources in New Mexico.

Another woman said female veterans have different issues from the men veterans. In Deming, Las Cruces or Albuquerque, there are some services, but no one here to see. "I finally got an appointment in Silver City. It took two years to get my yearly PAP test."

Veltri said he is an eight-year veteran combat medic. "I came to school here and realized there were few to no veteran resources here with a minimum of money allocated to them. It's a reflection of the state. I get emotional when I talk about it. We hear trauma and distress. The state talks about data and says they have services in Las Cruces. They don't look at rural issues. Saying we have to come to you is not what they should be saying. They should be coming to us. We answered the call; you need to answer our call where we veterans are. It's all lip service. I'm trying to create a collaborative effort. The university is putting out counselors, chemical dependency counselors, social workers and we want to use them to provide services to our veterans. You say you care, but you don't care enough. Did we say that to you before we went to combat? We have in our center telecommunication ability. We have a VA work study student who has the ability to do any job VA-related. Why not use our younger veterans who know the technology to work with the old veterans? We have to do it ourselves."

Dow asked for a budget needed for the center.

Veltri said the center has requested an operating budget for staff. "I've been working with (Rep.) Rudy (Martinez) and (Sen.) Gabe (Ramos). It goes back to how we need to do it ourselves. The VA is doing its own thing; the state is doing its own thing. We need to collaborate. We have 3,500 veterans here going to Tucson or El Paso. The older generation doesn't use social media or even email. We have to embed ourselves into the community and show we care. We have to do it ourselves, as the government, well, you're not doing it."

Mike Trujillo said, as a veteran, he has asked to be buried at Fort Bayard National Cemetery. "I've never heard back. I have my DD214."

Griego said: "As long as you have the DD 214, the funeral home can coordinate where you are buried. There's no reason not to be buried there."

A man said he has TBI (traumatic brain injury). "I looked forward to seeing the counselor once a month. Now we don't have a counselor. Please do your best for us."

Another man said the state has trouble with transportation. "The DAV van goes to Albuquerque, but there's no one to take the homebound to appointments."

Griego said that Rep. Martinez has passed a House Memorial to provide transportation for veterans. "We are looking at a pilot program. Other organizations have vehicles, too, but they don't talk to one another. Rudy knows there is a need."

A man suggested a voucher good for Corre Caminos.

Another man said: "But you can't be reimbursed for the cost unless you are 100 percent disabled."

A different man said he would like to use the Choice Program. "I went to Tri-Care in Florida and they would send me wherever. The Choice Program is not working here. I would also like to get reimbursed for going to Albuquerque. I live here. My brother in Tennessee gets reimbursed, but not here. New Mexico will not reimburse."

Another veteran said he finally got 50 percent disability, but "I have a lot of issues that are not service connected, so I don't get reimbursed for them."

"It's a different kind of hospital in Albuquerque," Morrison noted. "The VA said it depends on the state. That's why Tucson is better."

Al Gamboa said he has recently returned to his home in Grant County. "The El Paso VA is excellent. At Albuquerque and Tucson, you have long waits. I get treated well in El Paso because I have connections. El Paso is trying to send people out to their local doctors. We are remote. One of the factors for getting treatment is traveling, but people are not given the option to go to El Paso. If we could get services here, it could help the local community, the local hospital. If we can get the local community to step up to accept Choice it might work."

A woman said the Choice program is a veterans' program. "Tell Tri-West, say they have to be enrolled in the Choice Program. My chiropractor has tried to get into the system. They call, fill out the paperwork, send it in and nothing happened. Doctors here want to be part of the Choice Program."

David Maxwell said he has been dealing with the local VA Clinic and the state, too. "We have 26 veterans in my group that are seen here. There are three other groups. We need some kind of counseling. Another issue I see, which I know is not in your domain, Ms. Griego, but Albuquerque loses records, you don't get entered into the system, you show up for an appointment and it was cancelled without their telling you. They can't keep people. I'm going to Tucson. I can't go to the CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic) here. For the past eight years, they've gone downhill. You can't get past the nurses; you gotta go to Albuquerque. Another issue that I know is not in your domain, is I had to quit my job. I couldn't take the medications Albuquerque prescribed and do my job. I lost health care, my income, I took Social Security early and had to go to the VA here. I stayed with the VA to take care of my wife's health care. She had to go on the ACA (Affordable Care Act). Now, we have found out, because they dug up my records that I have 100 percent disability that the wife could go on, too. Healthcare.gov is telling me I have to pay back the ACA for what we used. They don't tell you things they don't want you to know. I found out I was covered since 2015, but I didn't know it. They said we were double-dipping."

Dow encouraged veterans to ask for and use the Choice Program to "strengthen our local resources. Talk to Gila Regional Medical Center, to the VA, to Al Gamboa, to Paulo and promote Choice. I need to follow up on the transportation issue. Vouchers on Corre Caminos make sense. Your Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small is part of a small group looking at veterans' issues, so talk to her field representative, too."

Dow told the Beat that she has had follow up meetings with the VA hospital in Albuquerque and they say some of the requests should be an easy thing to accomplish.