Velis calls on more support for female veterans in wake of audit

  • State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, a veteran of the Afghan war, speaks at a rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds, March 28. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/2/2022 8:39:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Massachusetts only knows of about 1,500 of the 25,000 female military veterans living in the state over a two-year period ending in mid-2021, a figure that one of the region’s senators says is a “huge problem.”

State Sen. John C. Velis, D-Westfield, an Army veteran whose service continues as a major in the Army Reserve, is calling for more state money to guarantee that all female military veterans are both identified and receiving services to which they are entitled.

Velis is making the appeal following the release of an audit last week by State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump that reveals the Department of Veterans’ Services Women Veterans Network only knew of about 6% of the women veterans living in Massachusetts between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2021.

In addition, the audit indicates that veterans services at the state level didn’t have a compliant advisory committee on women veterans to investigate, foster and promote the interests of women veterans, even though that is required by Massachusetts law, and veterans services had only four active service members for its 11-member advisory committee on women veterans.

“The audit makes it abundantly clear that women veterans in Massachusetts are not getting the resources and services that they need, and that is a huge problem,” Velis said.

Velis, who represents the Second Hampshire and Hampden District, is the chairman of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee.

“Women are our fastest growing demographic of veterans, and it is our duty as a commonwealth to ensure that we are doing everything we can to identify women veterans and meet their needs,” Velis said.

Bump’s 17-page report was delivered Sept. 27 to Cheryl Lussier Poppe, secretary for the Department of Veterans’ Services. The report found that 1,545 women veterans listed in its database, with a majority identified by their email addresses, even though 25,000 women veterans were living in the state as of Sept. 30, 2020, according to a census by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

“We doubt, based on the data and other material provided, that most women veterans are aware of all the resources available to them through DVS. This is unacceptable,” Bump said in a statement.

Steve Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services, said the state agency has been struggling on many fronts to serve all veterans, including at the soldiers’ homes and those returning from deployments.

“The fact that female veterans are not being identified, therefore, not learning what benefits and services out there during that two-year period is not a surprise,” Connor said.

A significant increase in funding is warranted, he said, as well as attention that can be given the matter by the governor who succeeds Charlie Baker.

“It is apparent to me that all of the various expectations on that agency cannot be met under the present circumstances, and hopefully the new administration will bring new focus to the concerns of all veterans, especially female veterans in Massachusetts,” Connor said. “After all, they are the largest growing populations of veterans in the country today.”

The work on adding funding has already begun. Velis said he helped secure $500,000 for the Women Veterans outreach program in the fiscal 2022 budget, which will help conduct a study on the changing needs of women veterans in Massachusetts. That program has typically received $116,000 annually.

Velis added that is clear that additional support for the state agency, and women veterans, are necessary.

“As chairman of the Veterans Committee, I always make it a priority to meet with veterans groups and hear from the boots on the ground on the issues they are facing,” Velis said.

The audit shows that female veteran are missing out on Chapter 115 financial aid, property tax exemptions, tuition waivers, license plate and ID designations, veteran annuities and care at the soldiers’ homes

“I’ve had the honor of training and serving alongside many women in the military. It’s no secret that they face entirely different challenges than their male counterparts,” Velis said. “From housing to medical care, women veterans have different needs, and we absolutely must ensure that none of them are falling between the cracks.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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