The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


July 21, 2013

Vet initiatives applauded

Action on local court, national benefits backlog

— There are people who for health reasons need and deserve special attention, but no one is more deserving of our nation’s support and gratitude than our veterans. 

That’s why we loudly applaud two initiatives discussed on our news pages last weekend:

* Hats off to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who is actively targeting a highly publicized benefits backlog involving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Waits in some cases of

500 and 600 days are totally unacceptable.

* Also of significant importance is Cambria County’s startup, finally, of a veterans court to monitor and address current and former service personnel who have run afoul of the law.

On the backlog issue, Casey and his staff have teamed up with Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and his staff to form the VA Backlog Working Group, according to a report by our Dave Sutor. The plan is to gather information from lawmakers, veterans and service organizations with the hope of issuing this fall a report and suggestions for corrective action.

An analysis/report made public earlier this year showed applicants were waiting an average of 625 days for responses through the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office. The wait was 510.3 days through the Philadelphia headquarters.

While those numbers have since decreased somewhat, according to Casey, they are nowhere near where they should be and need to be.

A claim is considered to be backlogged when it has been pending 125 days or longer.

The backlog, we’re told, is tied, in part, to an influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and also an increase of Agent Orange cases among Vietnam servicemen and women.

While that’s understandable, so is the fact that the veterans of those wars are the very ones who so desperately need and deserve the benefits they are seeking.

Sens. Casey and Heller are to be commended for putting their organization’s mission on a fast track.

Meanwhile, three people have successfully met the requirements of Cambria’s veterans court, four are about to and 12 are in the application process, according to our Kathy Mellott.

Two of the prime movers in establishing a court, District Attorney Kelly Callihan and Judge Timothy Creany, stressed that the program is not for the violent or more aggressive lawbreakers, but more likely for those facing DUI, petty-theft or domestic-violence cases where the spouse wants to save the marriage.

One track is a diversionary program for first-time offenders who, with successful completion, will have charges against them dismissed.

A second track is for those with prior criminal records, with participation determined on a case-by-case basis. They are able to enter a guilty plea to charges and work to lower the degree of criminal offense against them.

While some may not like the idea of giving breaks to select individuals or groups who have broken the law, we see the program as being similar to the day reporting center we touted in a July 11 editorial.

We must find ways to slash out-of-control prison costs. Veterans court does that by taking nonviolent offenders, putting them into a program with peer mentors, and helping them return to or continue productive lives.

The program is a win-win for Cambria County taxpayers and our deserving veterans, and we credit Callihan, Creany and others who have worked so hard to put it together.

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