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Guv overhauls veteran services, military outreach

Published December 14, 2012 3:52 pm

Services • Advocates worry the needs of former soldiers won't get enough attention.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In another change in Gov. Gary Herbert's Cabinet, Veterans Affairs Department Director Terry Schow is retiring — and Herbert is reorganizing so that one man, Gary Harter, will not only oversee veterans affairs but alsobe responsible for military issues such as protecting and promoting Hill Air Force Base and defense firms.

The governor's office toutsthe overhaulas a way to create more job opportunities for returning soldiers and to help provide one-stop shopping for veteran assistance.

But some veterans' groups worry that it is a step backward for the state's more than 165,000 veterans and 1,000-plus deployed Army and Air National Guard members. Instead of having a Cabinet seat that focuses just on them, they worry they will take a back seat to such things as protecting Hill.

"Veterans should be out there on their own," said William E. Christoffersen on behalf of the American Legion, as its Utah national committeeman. He said responsibilities for veterans affairs were buried for decades in various agencies, which often gave them secondary consideration, until the Veterans Affairs Department was created with Schow at the helm in 2007.

The reorganization announcement Friday came a week after Herbert said he was also replacing the heads of the departments of transportation, public safety and corrections in what his office labeled as "initial changes" to state leadership as the governor heads into a new term — his first full one.

Herbert is appointing Harter as the newly created veterans and military services adviser. His is a retired U.S. Army colonel and is currently the managing director of the business creation team in the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Herbert said the appointment and planned restructuring are part of an effort to elevate outreach to Utah's military installation and defense firms, and also "do everything we can to engage all partners, and leverage and optimize all resources, to meet critical needs for veterans."

Harter said that creation of his new position should increase efficiency and coordination.

"It elevates the interests of both the military and the veterans as a top priority. It provides a single point of contact and a voice at the highest levels of state government."

Schow — who celebrated his 64th birthday Friday as the announcement was made — will not retire until June. He will help oversee the completion and opening of two new nursing homes for veterans.

Schow said the intended restructuring could help implement recommendations of a Veterans Reintegration Task Force, "including trying to consolidate some of the services for veterans that are spread out among several different agencies" — from Veterans Affairs to the departments of workforce services, human services, health and the National Guard. "That's certainly a good thing."

Herbert applauded Schow's 35 years of work in government on behalf of veterans. "Terry's tireless advocacy for all veterans is unparalleled," he said.

Frank Maughan, chairman of the Governor's Veterans Advisory Council, said Schow's departure will leave a huge hole in helping veterans find, use and update available benefits.

"His expertise will be sorely missed," Maughan said. "He has connections in virtually all the states, and with all the veterans organizations" that he used to solve problems of individuals veterans.

Maughan, who is also Utah commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he is concerned about the restructuring.

"I remain skeptical what the governor wants to accomplish is accomplish-able. ... I have reservations about the office's ability to accomplish all these new tasks," and not give short shrift to veterans, he said. "We certainly have the opportunity to take a major step backwards."

Christoffersen with the American Legion has similar reservations.

"I just hope it doesn't go downhill. We've fought for years to get this [veterans assistance and visibility] where it is at."

But state Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, co-chairman of the Veterans Reintegration Task Force established by the Legislature last year, said the restructuring proposed by Herbert appears to be on the right track.

"We're concerned that we are getting the proper services to veterans," he said, "and we're trying to make it as simplistic as possible — kind of a one-stop shopping so they don't have to go to 10 different agencies to figure out how to get help."

He said an expanded role of overseeing military and veterans affairs "is the right thing to do," and could help all involved.

Tage Flint, president of the Utah Defense Alliance, a community group that works on behalf of military installations, also hailed the restructuring.

"We are encouraged by it. Having someone with whom we can work throughout the year with the Governor's Office is a great idea. In particular, Mr. Harter is excellent."