SAVANNAH — Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., headlined the fourth annual Veterans Services Forum on Monday at Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Armstrong Center.
The event began with a moment of silence in remembrance of Ranger Staff Sgt. Tanner Higgins, 1st Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, who was killed April 14 in action in Afghanistan.
As the color guard posted the colors, several generations of veterans stood in honor of their flag, including Jacques Cutuil of Camden County. Despite his wheelchair and having to wear a respirator, Cutuil rose along with the crowd.
Other wheelchair-bound veterans saluted from seated positions.
Narrator Col. (ret.) Eric Robyn, a former artillery officer, said he was privileged to be a part of the forum, adding that as a veteran himself, he is aware of the concerns of veterans. He introduced Kingston, who, Robyn said, also is aware of veterans’ concerns.
“He loves the military,” Robyn said of Kingston, reminding everyone the congressman serves on several committees. “He loves veterans. And he loves the U.S. Constitution.”
Kingston thanked AASU President Dr. Linda Bleicken, Robyn, Army Reserve Ambassador Luis Carreras, the panel of VA representatives and, especially, the veterans in attendance. He began by touching on the issues concerning military families and veterans, noting the current war and threats from Iran and Korean.
“We all want to bring them back alive,” he said. “But what do we do with them — for them — when they come home? That 19-year-old jumping off a Blackhawk with a 75-pound rucksack on his back may be able to do it now, and it may not bother him next year or the next. But when he gets older, he’s going to need help when the discs in his neck and back begin to show signs of wear from the things he did while serving his country.”
Kingston introduced the panel of VA representatives with him, including five from the Atlanta regional office, one from Philadelphia, one from the Charleston VA Medical Center and one from the Dublin VA Medical Center. He also pointed out representatives from several veterans’ organizations, including Honor Flight Savannah, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Marine Corps League, the Vietnam Veterans of American and the Disabled American Veterans.
Before the question-and-answer session, Kingston introduced an American hero to be recognized, Sgt. Stuart Herrick, 91, a Army cavalryman who served during World War II in the Philippines’ Battle of Layte.
Herrick was escorted by Carreras, a former cavalryman, then he was surrounded by a new generation of cavalrymen from the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. Herrick then was presented with a Bronze Star by Kingston.
Herrick accepted the medal with a “thank you.” His wife, Susan Herrick, suggested they have a moment of silence for the thousands of soldiers who didn’t come home after that horrendous battle.
Most of the questions and comments posed by the veterans who waited in a long line behind a microphone were expressions of bitterness, more so than actual questions. Many vets simply vented their frustration with the VA and Congress for veterans benefit issues like their cost-of-living allowance and changes in receipt of travel pay.
Atlanta VA Regional Office Director Al Bocchiccio responded directly to a question about how an Air Force veteran who had recently had a stroke might receive special VA assistance should he become bedridden. Kingston responded to complaints that veterans had had their cost-of-living allowances frozen but congressional pay had not been frozen.
“That’s just not true,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know it, but those ‘evil sons of a gun’ (Congress) have had their pay frozen since 2008. Folks have suggested we cut foreign aid rather than programs here, especially veterans’ care. And I agree. In fact, one fella has said we don’t have to pay all those countries to vote against us. They’ll do it for free.”
Veteran Dennis Grantham from Screven had a more personal complaint. The former Special Forces soldier reported that he had been escorted from the VA hospital four times when he demanded treatment for internal bleeding. His VA doctor reportedly told Grantham he had no internal bleeding, but he later learned through a civilian doctor that he did have bleeding from a tumor in his intestines, a condition that had gone untreated for nearly four years.
“Nobody — especially a veteran — should ever be treated like that,” he said. “We’re human beings as well as veterans. I was denied the help I feel like I deserved.”
The VA representatives declined to respond to Grantham’s remarks, but Kingston acknowledged that he had talked with Grantham and was aware of his circumstances. He agreed that no veteran should ever be treated that way and said Grantham would get the help he needed.