HOUGHTON - The state of Michigan is 53rd in the United States in benefits to veterans - behind even Guam and Puerto Rico - but local government and veterans organizations hope to change that soon.
Toward that end, State Representative Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, held a veterans symposium Friday morning at the Baraga Readiness Center, which included several special guests to address veterans issues immediately or get the process started.
Huuki secured the attendance of State Rep. Ray Franz, chair of the House Military and Veterans Committee, and Jason Allen, senior deputy director for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Patrick Holcomb, an assistant veterans affairs field officer, and Susan Feldhauser from the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans, were also in attendance.
Daily Mining Gazette/Stephen Anderson
State Rep. Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, addresses a group of veterans during a symposium Friday morning at the Baraga Readiness Center. Also seated are Jennifer Smeltzer, legislative director for state Rep. Ray Franz, and Patrick Holcomb, assistant veterans affairs field officer.
"I myself as your state Representative know I'm only standing here freely because of the sacrifices you and your family have done throughout your lifetime," Huuki said. "I will be honest with you, I'm not the expert on these issues, but I've turned to the people I believe are the experts. ... I thought this was a great opportunity to bring these individuals together."
Franz, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War and a Bronze Star recipient, emphasized the importance of addressing veterans issues.
"(Michigan) has a horrible record in service to our veterans - absolutely horrendous," he said. "We want to make sure veterans get the benefits they've earned - and make no mistake, they have earned those benefits - and take advantage of those."
A wide range of issues was discussed, including the 40,000 veterans' claims in Michigan with a response time of more than a year in some cases, low-income pensions and poor Upper Peninsula veterans' representation.
While Allen expressed the importance of the U.P. in terms of representation, he pointed out that 91 percent of veterans live south of downstate Clare County. Michigan has the 11th largest veterans population in the country (7.1 percent of the total population), and the lowest utilization of the GI Bill. Only 18.5 percent of Michigan veterans are actively enrolled in health care.
Also, according to Allen, about 4 percent of available Michigan men served in the most recent Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts and for every death, there were 24 to 26 survivors. World War II by comparison had a 25 percent participation with two survivors for every death.
"We're going to have to get ready for demographic changes," Allen said. "Gov. Snyder, my budget chairman and my committee chairman have been tireless in their efforts. Being here with Mr. Huuki has been invaluable. ... We're working on a strategic plan to get things organized."
Bill Coffey with the American Legion expressed concern about funding cuts for veterans homes, though Franz pointed out that is changing under the Snyder administration, but it still has a long way to go.
"We put more money into taking care of a prisoner than we do in taking care of a veteran in the state of Michigan. I think that's unconscionable," Coffey said.
Franz agreed with Coffey, and he also appreciated Coffey's suggestion to pursue even harder establishing a state veterans' cemetery in the Upper Peninsula.
"I'm not a career politician. I don't know everything. This is the reason we came here to hear that kind of an idea so we can start the process, and you just started it," Franz told Coffey.
Several other suggestions were made and questions raised, to which Huuki, Franz, Allen and Holcomb said they would address.
In many cases, Holcomb said problems are not dealt with because they are never brought up.
Huuki held another symposium Friday in Bessemer, and he will meet again with veterans in Iron River from 10 a.m. to noon CST today at the Iron River Readiness Center.
For more information on benefits and services for Michigan veterans, visit michigan.gov/veterans.