By Scott Robertson
Robert Clark is in for a busy couple of weeks.
Clark is the new administrative assistant at the field office of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services at the Mountain Home V.A. Hospital. And right now he’s alone in the office, with only the sound of the telephone ringing to keep him company.
The three people who had manned that office have all moved on to other pursuits at the same time (make of that what you will). Randy Lingerfelt took early retirement from the state of Tennessee. Jessica Sabbides took an offer from the Veterans Administration, moving from state government employment to federal government employment at the same facility. And David Batchelder went in exactly the opposite direction, moving from state government work down to the county level. He’s taking the position of county veterans service officer for Carter County.
So Clark, who the state says won’t officially start until October 19, but who returned our call to the TDVS field office voicemail Monday, has a juggling act to do.
What that means for veterans seeking help from the state of Tennessee right now is this: if you want to save a step in the bureaucracy (and who wouldn’t?), go ahead and go straight to your county veterans service officer rather than calling the TDVS office at Mountain Home. Because until the cavalry arrives, Clark says, that’s what he’s going to be telling veterans to do anyway.
“The state will be hiring in two new veterans service representatives,” Clark told us Monday afternoon, “but till then, I’ll have to send veterans who call this office to either Jerry Story in Washington County or David Batchelder in Carter County, or whoever their county officer is.”
That’s the bad news. The good news, according to Yvette Martinez, assistant commissioner for communications at the TDVS office in Nashville, is that the cavalry is arriving soon.
“First, the field office is not closing,” Martinez said, in response to a rumor that the office would be shutting its doors entirely or cutting its staff to a single veterans services representative. “Thank you for coming to us before publishing that. We have had instances in the past where rumors became headlines.
“What’s happening is this,” Martinez said. “We are in the process of putting two new employees in place. There will be one who will set up appointments (Clark) and one veterans resource coordinator. The one who will be setting up the appointments will be in place on the 19th. The new individual who will be filing claims will begin on the 26th. We will be hiring a second veterans resource coordinator at a later date.”
Martinez did not have a specific date to which she could point as the starting point for the second veterans resource coordinator.
The Mountain Home office had been seeing around 50 veterans per day.
For his part, Story is already feeling the effects of the changeover. “I expect the caseload to pick up tremendously and immediately,” he said.
“The last three days of last week I saw five, eight and five people,” Story said. “I had been averaging two to three a day. It’s been growing already, but it has really been taking off just recently. It’s been growing. It’s about to explode.” And other Northeast Tennessee counties are likely to see similar increases in their workloads.
With the state office working relatively short-staffed for the foreseeable future, Story will likely have to make some changes to the way he does business. “Well, when someone comes in, the first thing I’m going to have to ask is, ‘Do you live in Washington County?’ and if they don’t, I’m going to have to tell them to go to their own county’s office.”
“I expect we may need to get some help in here,” Story said. “Right now we don’t even have space for people to wait.” Story’s office is big enough for three people, including himself, to sit. There is no waiting area besides the hallway, which is also traversed by visitors to the offices of the county mayor and county attorney. There are two conference rooms on the hall, one of which Story has been using as waiting room space if no one else needs the room.
The notion of getting someone else in to help Story with the caseload may or may not fly. The county commission is already looking at how to fund a number of projects that had been budgeted to take effect after a proposed property tax increase, but that increase was voted down last month. So the Veterans Services office is in the funding queue behind other worthy projects.
“This is a definite need,” Story said. “These vets aren’t asking for handouts. For the most part, they’re just asking for a hand up to be able to get what they have earned.”
At this point, it may well be advisable for veterans to bypass both the state and county offices as their first step in finding assistance in obtaining benefits. Non-government veterans’ organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion can render some aid. Because at this rate, Robert Clark isn’t the only one who’s in for a busy time ahead.