Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 27, 2013

George Weeks: Political rivals have common cause on vets

In 2010, Upper Peninsula surgeon Dan Benishek and longtime state lawmaker Jason Allen of Traverse City had a fierce battle for the Republican nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee. Benishek won by just 15 votes out of nearly 99,000 cast.

But now the two are distant allies in a noble and urgent effort to improve the lot of military veterans — returned and returning — a cause being highlighted in Washington by First Lady Michelle Obama, who strives to help military families, and in Lansing by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Benishek, who long practiced at a veteran's hospital in Iron Mountain, is on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and has been a champion of vets on Capitol Hill.

Allen, who served in the Michigan Army National Guard, was a 1999-2002 member of the House and 2003-2010 of the Senate, where he was the majority whip and chaired a veterans affairs committee and sponsored legislation requiring post-deployment psychiatric evaluations of veterans.

Allen now is senior deputy director of Michigan's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.

In his Jan. 16 State of the State Address, Snyder said he would create an agency in the department to help veterans collect what they're owned.

Two days later he created the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency to begin operating March 20 on the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

Allen, lamenting that about 680,000 military vets don't use the benefits they have earned, said Friday that improving the lot of Michigan veterans "has become a major issue" for Snyder.

No wonder: The Associated Press reported that although Michigan has the nation's 11th highest population of veterans, it ranks dead last in federal money spent per person on services provided through the U.S. Veterans Administration — medical treatment, pensions, schooling, disability compensation, and employment assistance.

In announcing that he would create an agency focused on helping veterans identify and connect with services, Snyder's office said:

"With services to veterans currently spread across 15 state departments, the new agency will increase awareness of programs available to veterans. In partnership with veteran service officers and county veteran counselors, the agency will improve customer service by creating coordinated points of entry to veteran benefits by expanding access to services in every county.

"In addition, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs will review the state's licensing requirements and provide a list of occupations for which veterans' military skills are equal or superior to their civilian peers. After the review, the governor will work with lawmakers on legislation that expedites the process of getting veterans back to work, particularly as EMTs, mechanics and commercial truck drivers."

George weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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