A day after Mr. Donald Trump is scheduled to give a speech in the nation’s fifth largest city about the military, and following a NBC News Commander-in-Chief forum featuring both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Hillary Clinton fielding questions from active service members and veterans, a Philadelphia organization billed as a champion for vulnerable veterans will announce a lawsuit against the city for its failure to follow a 1955 state code that calls for the county commissioners to appoint a Director of Veterans Affairs that provide veterans and their dependents direct assistance to identify, determine eligibility and assist in the preparation of applications for federal and state benefits and programs.
On Thursday at noon, Pointman Soldiers Heart Ministry, a nonprofit organization, will assemble in front of the Veterans Advisory Commission on the ground level of City Hall for a press conference, hoping to attract the local news media to cover a story that, despite festering for years – PSHM was the driving force behind a 2012 Veterans State of Emergency hearing in City Council chambers – has garnered minimal attention.
The existence of the 1955 law isn’t in dispute, but whether it should be, or is being, followed is. City Councilman Mr. David Oh, a Republican and veteran, said he believes that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are exempt from the state code though he does favor having a county office. A county office would allow veterans to apply for state benefits and programs, which the Philadelphia Veterans Advisory Commission isn’t equipped to do, though it is tasked with fulfilling the job of a County Veterans Affairs Office.
According to the VAC’s Executive Director, Mr. Scott Brown, who also serves as the County Director of Veterans Affairs and claims to have been trained to act as such, a resolution was passed to merge the CVAO into the city’s existing infrastructure.
“This office acts 100% as the county,” Mr. Brown told me.
But other than processing emergency assistance applications – four of which were filed today – and state property taxes, the VAC doesn’t assist veterans in claiming federal and state benefits but rather it merely submits claims to the Philadelphia Regional Benefit Office at 5000 Wissahickon Ave.
Disability claims are federal, according to Mr. Brown, and are strictly handled by the Wissahickon Ave office, and the Philadelphia VA Regional Office is in no way associated with VAC. The VAC, according to Councilman Oh, is an entity of the legislature via resolution, meaning it’s discretionary and could hypothetically be disregarded by another Council President.
But under the leadership of Mr. Darrell Clarke, the current City Council President, the VAC is funded to an extent never before seen in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, Councilman Oh told Techbook Online exclusively that the argument for a funded, permanent office set-up to deliver specific services to veterans has merit and is “an important issue.”
Mr. Ari Merretazon, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a veteran who was drafted into the Vietnam War at age 19, is not only seeking damages for himself – he applied for the job in 2013 but was denied, despite being extremely qualified for the position – but also wants the courts to command the City of Philadelphia appoint a Director of Veterans Affairs.
A 2012 study conducted for the Pa. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs that says “veterans from Philadelphia County noted their frustration with not having a country VSO director. The Philadelphia Veterans Advisory Commission currently fills this role, although veterans did not feel that there was sufficient flow of information from this entity.”
Mr. Brown wasn’t appointed until 2014 and didn’t utilize the office in years past though he’s a veteran, thus he had no comment for what did or didn’t take place other than to say that there were certainly “many years where this office was scarred with neglect.”
But during his reign, Mr. Brown touts that he and his subordinates are completing trainings, filing claims and are getting the word out about the office. Mr. Brown is aware of the lawsuit but has been advised not to speak on it.
The VAC was established in the late 1950s but decades of records for meetings and events appear non-existent.
“I don’t know where they are,” said Councilman Oh.
4th District City Councilman Mr. Curtis Jones, who has served on Council since 2008, once told me when he joined the government the only thing the City offered veterans were flags.
Mr. Merretazon said the lawsuit, in addition to focusing on the non-compliance of the 1955 state code, will highlight decades of willful neglect regarding veterans affairs by the City of Philadelphia.
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Photos courtesy of the author.