Special to The Republican
LUDLOW – Eric Segundo, director of this town’s veterans services, is adding his voice to a growing number of advocates in opposition to a bill before the state legislature that would replace local veterans services offices with 25 regional centers funded through the state.
“We take care of veterans locally. We know who they are and provide the services to them,” said Segundo, who served in Iraq. He sees the proposed legislation as “loosing the local contentedness to veterans.”
“The bill is looking to limit veterans services offices within cities and towns and create districts run by state employees,” he added.
Segundo also serves as president of the Western Massachusetts Veterans Service Officers’ Association, and Hampden District 7 Commander of the Veterans of Foreign War.
A state law, dating back to 1861 and the start of the Civil War, established the Department of Veterans Affairs. It requires the state’s approximately 300 municipalities to hire full-time veterans services officers, with less populated towns and cities having the option of a part time VSO, or joining with other towns/cities to form a district. These agents help qualifying veterans access financial assistance, as well as access medical benefits and help with other needs, such as transport.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country to require municipalities to have local VSOs, and a bill filed in January by Berkshire County Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, would put an end to this distinction. Legislators in support of the An Act Relative to Veterans’ Agents, Bill H. 3319, include Representatives Brian M. Ashe, D-Longmeadow, and Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield. The bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, whose members include Senators Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Donald F. Humason, Jr., R-Westfield.
Pushback to the proposed legislation has started with Belchertown’s board of selectmen unanimously voting to send a letter to Bouvier-Farley opposing the idea. The selectmen also voted to re-appoint Ray Janke, the town’s VSO, to another one-year term.
In an email to Belchertown officials, and shared at the April 12th meeting covered by The Republican’s Jim Russell, Farley-Bouvier said her proposed legislation would “require the Commissioner of Veterans’ Services to divide the commonwealth into at least 25 geographical districts, and each district would be overseen by a veterans’ service agent.”
“The agents and their deputies, assistants, and any administrative staff, would be state employees who provide benefits directly from the state to the veterans and veterans’ dependents within their district, removing the burden of those benefits from local taxes,” the email report added.
The selectman in the Worcester County town of Ashburnham also agreed to show their opposition by sending a letter to legislators. The chair of the selectman in Hingham, on the South Shore, has also written her legislator in opposition to the bill.
Segundo sent a letter in March to state legislators. He takes a number of older veterans for medical care in Connecticut, and dislikes that the proposed bill would require “veterans in our communities travel to district offices.”
In his letter, incorporating language from the state chapter of the American Veterans that also opposes the bill, Segundo wrote that the bill “is not in the best interest of our veterans, their families and the long-standing traditions of taking care of veterans locally.”
“The commonwealth’s local municipalities have resident veterans and family members who have individual needs that are best served by their own local agent, rather than state government,” Segundo wrote. “Each city and town has unique individual needs and traditions which their veteran populations hold dear.”
Segundo also notes that, during the annual tribute, in Springfield’s Court Square, to those who served and those who died in the Vietnam War, the newly appointed Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs Francisco Urena acknowledged the work of the local offices.
“We have a veterans service office in every city and town in Massachusetts, because we owe it to our veterans to have a representative easily accessible to them,”said Urena, who is a Purple Heart Marine, at the March 29 gathering.
Segundo is also been distributing a statement from Michael C. Johns, president of the Massachusetts Veterans’ Service Officers Association, in which the local agents are referred to as the “boots on the ground.”
“I am confident that citizens, local leadership, legislators and the executive branch will continue to honor the longstanding tradition of providing veterans’ services at the local level, by municipally appointed veterans agents,” Johns’ statement says. “Local veterans agents are the boots on the ground and the cornerstone of the program in caring for those who’ve sacrificed so much.”