State veterans affairs official holds talk at Cuesta College

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 16, 2014 

Peter J. Gravett, secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, has several messages for local military veterans: Pursue benefits. Connect with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And watch out for each other, “because we can’t be everywhere.”

Gravett, who was appointed to lead “CalVet” in 2011, addressed about 20 people, including students and some veterans, Wednesday at Cuesta College. He was invited by the college’s Veterans Resource Center.

CalVet serves as an advocate for California’s nearly 2 million veterans, including about 21,500 in San Luis Obispo County. Of those, 225 are homeless.

“Ten percent of all veterans in the nation are right here in California,” said Gravett, 72, a former Los Angeles police officer who served more than 40 years in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard before retiring in 2006. “Our task is to reach out to veterans to ensure they are connected to all the benefits they need, from pension to disability payments, to medical care to others.”

The state department provides eight residential care homes for veterans in California, runs a loan program to help veterans buy homes, constructs low-income housing for veterans, and — most importantly, Gravett said — conducts outreach to help veterans access federal benefits.

He said the department’s four main areas of concern for veterans are housing, education, employment and health care.

Some of those attending Gravett’s talk raised questions that illustrated the range of issues facing veterans: mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder; concerns about qualifying for programs; and a massive backlog of disability compensation claims that peaked at more than 611,000 in March 2013.

The number of claims has been reduced by about 44 percent to 344,000 claims, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs announced April 1.

Gravett said it was possible to wait one to three years for a decision on a claim. But state legislation enacted last year allowed CalVet to hire 36 people to help process claims in three federal VA offices located in California.

“I dare say within the next year or so there won’t be a backlog and (the claims) will all be under the 125-day cap,” he said. “The goal is to have a claim adjudicated and money in veterans’ pocket in 125 days or less.”

One attendee, Cuesta College student and retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Stitt, said it took a year for him to build his claim package, which required numerous visits to a doctor at an outpatient clinic in San Luis Obispo.

Stitt, the incoming president of Cuesta College’s Student Veteran Association club, said he would advise other veterans to be patient and follow up on their claims if they haven’t heard anything after a month or two.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Stitt, 58.

Another attendee asked what CalVet is doing to help address a spiking suicide rate among some veterans. Data released earlier this year showed the suicide rate increased nearly 44 percent for male veterans under 30 from 2009-11, according to news reports.

Gravett said his department is collaborating with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Interagency Council on Veterans, which was formed to address a number of issues including suicide prevention.

In the meantime, he said, “Veterans need to reach out and help each other because we can’t be everywhere.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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