Local Veterans Affairs office closes

6/9/2014

By KELTON BROOKS

By KELTON BROOKS

kbrooks@gctelegram.com

The Veterans Affairs office in Garden City permanently closed Friday, leaving local veterans to travel farther distances to seek needed assistance. But officials from the Kansas Commission on Veteran Affairs said the closing of the office will actually expand services.

"The office is vitally needed here," said Roy Dixon, commander of the roughly 300-member American Legion Post No. 9 in Garden City. "We're left out here. What about the veterans that are 60, 70 or 80 years old? Now they have to head down the highway for hours."

The office, previously located at 116 E. Chestnut St., Suite 105, is no longer available in Garden City for area veterans who require any form of health care. If a Garden City veteran wishes to receive help, they would have to contact or travel to the office in Fort Dodge, roughly 60 miles away.

Eric Rohleder, Western Kansas supervisor for the Kansas Commission of Veteran Affairs, who supervises Colby, Hays, Salina, Junction City, Manhattan and Dodge City, said for the past six months, the program has undergone reorganization to better the veteran affairs commission. Rohleder said the reason behind the closing of the local office was because of limited funding, and it was one of the lesser utilized offices in southwest Kansas. Even with the office no longer in business, the commission still will service the Garden City area with the addition of two representatives from the commission. One will man the office in Fort Dodge for those who personally make the trip, and the other will travel throughout southwest Kansas to aid veterans.

The commission also has scheduled a mobile office that will visit Garden City at various locations, such as the public library or Finney County Courthouse, but no exact dates or permanent schedule have been planned to regularly travpermanent schedule have been planned to regularly travel to the area. Rohleder said he hopes to have the mobile office visit Garden City to serve local veterans by the end of June.

There are mobile offices currently stationed in Hays and Independence. One mobile office previously made a stop at the Garden City Walmart on April 22. The veteran services representatives helped veterans navigate resources and benefits such as service-related disability compensation, improved pension with aid and attendance, death pensions, VA health care, education benefits, vocational rehabilitation and other services, and plan to continue the service within every mobile office.

"We have been seeing veterans (in Garden City) until last Friday," Rohleder said. "We have a method in place that every veteran will be seen, or we will come and see them. We took a look at the veteran population in southwest Kansas, and we're doing everything we can to provide them with the proper service."

The commission serves more than 65 counties in Kansas, but has 18 representatives to help serve 225,000 veterans in Kansas. Rohleder said having a representative in the office at all times will assure service for a veteran that chooses to travel, and the road representative will accommodate those who are homebound.

One area veteran doesn't believe that is enough to help veterans local or statewide.

"To my friends, family, comrades that have served, this burns me down deep inside," said Alvin Zahnter, of Russell, a former letter carrier who filed June 3 to run against U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in the Republican primary. "Personally, that made my vets go further out without any help."

Zahnter, who was born in Garden City, said closing the office is another way of shutting the veterans out.

"They shouldn't have to drive 100 miles. That's wrong," he said.

Wayne Bollig, director of veterans services, said the goal of the commission is to expand services and to make sure it's easier to reach the veterans, especially in rural counties.

"We don't anticipate any negative impact to veterans in the area," Bollig said. "If a veteran comes to the office and a representative is not there, then we have made them drive for nothing. We don't want that. We want to make sure our offices can be open during work hours when veterans need us and still be able to go out to different counties."

Bollig said veterans can schedule an appointment to visit the office in Fort Dodge, request a representative to come to their home or plan a trip to travel to the office in Fort Dodge.

Dixon said he was told the local office closed because of budget cuts, and added that a representative out on the road means one less person to help in the veterans affairs office, stating that more is needed to help all veterans.

"This affects all vets of all eras, and not just Legion," Dixon said.

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