Veterans advocates rally at capitol for better investment in ex-military programs

Veterans rally at the state capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 27 to ask Ariz. Governor Dough Ducey to invest in more veterans programs. Ducey withdrew his budget proposal last week to cut just over $900,000 from the Veterans Family Relief Fund. (Alejandro Salazar/DD)
Veterans rally at the state capitol to demand more investment in veterans programs. Gov. Doug Ducey recently reinstated more than $900,000 into the Veterans Family Relief Fund. (Alejandro Salazar/DD)

About a dozen veterans advocates gathered at the state capitol on Tuesday to ask Gov. Doug Ducey to invest more in Arizona veterans programs.

The gathering came a week after Ducey reinstated $930,000 to the Military Family Relief Fund in his proposed budget that originally had been cut. The fund helps returning post-9/11 veterans and their families in times of need.

David Lucier, president of the Veterans and Military Leadership Alliance, said that while preserving the fund was a step in the right direction, the governor still needs to do more for veterans in his time in office.

“We’re here to talk to and reach out to the governor and to the legislature about why Arizona veterans are a good investment,” Lucier said in a speech during the event.

During his speech, Lucier asked the governor to invest in Arizona veterans programs by increasing the number of veterans benefits counselors, investing in housing for homeless veterans, appointing a director of the Arizona Department of Veterans Services, expanding veterans educational benefits and restructuring the Military Family Relief Fund to make it more accessible to veterans.

Lucier said the Arizona prison system budget exceeds $1 billion while the budget for veterans services reaches only $30,000. He also said that there are only 37 veterans benefits advisors hired by the state to cover more than 600,000 veterans. However, he said each advisor would bring in $1 million of veterans benefits to Arizona’s revenue.

Army veteran Chris Rogers said the Military Family Relief Fund kept his family from being homeless while he was awaiting a disability appeal through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, Rogers was pursuing a degree in biology for conservation and ecological sustainability when his school revoked his educational benefits from the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program through the VA because he was rated as unemployable.

However, the VA maintained his disability rating of 60 percent, denying him an unemployable status. While Rogers was appealing through the VA, he said his wife found out she was pregnant with their second child.

“At that time I was getting $1,200 a month. Well, all of our bills added up to $1,800,” he said. “We had sold everything of value that we had that wasn’t sentimental…we had no cable, we had no cell phones.”

Rogers said that after he applied for the Military Family Relief Fund he was able to keep his house and pay all the bills that were behind.

While some at the rally were still skeptical and demanded Ducey’s administration to be more proactive on veterans issues, others said they understood the governor and his dilemma in trying to fix the budget.

“To be fair, Gov. Ducey is not in an enviable situation,” said Corey Harris, a veterans’ advocate. “He’s left with a major budget shortfall and he’s got to make it up. Veterans are loud and…to his credit, he heard us and backed off.”

Harris said he would also like the governor to invest more money in the State Housing Trust Fund, a program that funds homeless shelters and transitional housing.

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