Kent Davis, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA), gave an outstanding presentation to a good gathering of veterans and interested community members on November 10 at the Jim and Shirley Justice Center (Calhoun County Democratic headquarters) in Anniston. This meeting, which included a light lunch, celebrated the observed Veterans Day, which fell on Friday because the actual day – November 11 – falls on Saturday. Commissioner Davis gave an extensive overview of the ADVA and its relationship to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Davis began with a brief history of Veterans’ Day. Originally Armistice Day, remembered the truce that ended World War I at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. That became a national holiday in 1938. The first observance of that event by the Veterans Day label came in Birmingham, AL, in 1947. The purpose was to expand recognition to include veterans beyond World War I. This event was the work of Raymond Weeks, who had served in World War II. Weeks had met and become a friend of General Dwight Eisenhower. Partly through Weeks’ continuing friendship with Eisenhower, President Eisenhower changed the name of the national holiday to Veterans Day in 1954.
Davis’ main thrust was to convey the broad scope of the ADVA and its close working relationship with the three departments under the VA: the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). Davis noted that the VA is second in size only to the Department of Defense. Davis stressed that he and others in the ADVA work very closely with people in the VA, as well as with counterparts in all of the other states’ veterans affairs agencies. In fact, the state departments are often the ones that deliver key services to individual vets. These services mainly come through the network of county-level service officers, who provide immediate access and aid to veterans and their family members on matters of eligibility and claims. Among achievements Davis noted on his watch, which began in 2019, is the expansion in the number of service offices across the state, so that veterans have easier access to help they need. Davis stressed that too many veterans get discouraged when they run into obstacles or get an initial answer of ‘no.’ In many cases, working with service officers and the ADVA, there is some way to help a veteran or family member reach a good result. He urged vets who have claims denied not to give up and to go to the service officers of the ADVA or the veterans’ service organizations, including the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), for free help before going to a lawyer who will charge a fee. Davis also stressed the kinds of available benefits to Alabama vets, including some often unknown and underused. He specifically talked about the state’s scholarship program. That is open to children of AL vets with a 40% disability rating or higher. He discussed the VA system of hospitals and clinics around the state. He also talked efforts to increase the number of these facilities to help achieve the national goal of every vet having some facility within 75 miles of his/her home. He noted the great increase in vets in north Alabama and need for a VA hospital in Huntsville.
Davis highlighted the huge expansion of benefits for vets that came with the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 – commonly called the PACT Act. This law expanded eligibility for VA health care for any veteran with toxic-exposures and all veterans of the Vietnam era, Gulf War era, and Post-9/11 era. This law added more than 20 new ‘presumptive’ conditions related to burn pits and other toxic exposures. For any of these conditions, no proof other than presence in a location is required to qualify for benefits. One part of this law is the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act,” which lets people who used contaminated water at that Marine Corps base to file lawsuits to recover damages for toxic exposure. Comparable consideration for toxic exposures at Fort McClellan has not come. Davis warned vets to check out lawyers advertising their services to file suits under this law, because some lawyers with minimal qualifications are soliciting clients with an eye to a quick contingency fee, rather than the interests of the vet. The PACT Act also provides for 31 new VHA medical facilities nationwide but none in Alabama.
One measure of ADVA’s importance is the large number of vets in Alabama – about 400,000, about 9% of the whole state population. Including family members raises the percentage to about 13%. ADVA has a small headquarters in Montgomery with about 1,200 state and contract employees in 71 locations statewide.
Davis stressed the nonpartisan nature of his position and the ADVA. A State Board of Veterans Affairs (SBVA) of 16 members from the major veterans service organizations nominates and selects the commissioner. The board’s selection goes to the governor, who chairs the board, for confirmation. This arrangement protects the commissioner from partisan influence.
Davis talked at length about the challenges and threat that suicide poses to Alabama vets. The percentage of deaths by suicide is double that of vets in Alabama’s population. A special concern is that 80% of deaths by suicide among Alabama’s vets is by a firearm. He also noted that most suicides occur within an hour of a person first having the thought. He showed a short video encouraging people to recognize the danger and have a trusted person take control of a gun if a person starts having thoughts of harming him/herself. “Alabama’s Challenge” seeks to drive down the suicide rate. This program involves a wide range of federal, state, and private partners. One important change has been creating 988 as a universal number to call for people having thoughts of harming themselves.
The ADVA has greatly expanded and improved in two kinds of facilities. One is the state veterans homes. These provide very low-cost residential and, as needed, nursing care. A new veterans home in Enterprise will be finished in the coming year, making a total of five, geographically dispersed across the state. The state has also expanded the number of veterans cemeteries. These state-owned/operated cemeteries provide the same availability and benefits as those that the VA’s National Cemetery Administration. The most recent was in Spanish Fort, opened in 2012. The plan was for each cemetery to meet needs for the next 100 years. However, these places have become so popular that the Spanish Fort cemetery is already undergoing a major expansion.
Finally, Davis responded to a variety of questions, both during his presentation and during the question-and-answer period following. He stressed not being afraid to ask tough questions, as well as going to elected representatives for help as needed.
In introducing the program retired Navy Captain Jim Williams noted that Veterans Day exists to honor all vets. He also noted that such respect hasn’t always prevailed. He held up a small flag with red, green and yellow bunting. He had carried that flag in reportedly the first Welcome Home parade in the US for Vietnam veterans. That parade was in 1981 – 6 years after the official end of the Vietnam War.
Special thanks to David Talley for coordinating invitations, reaching out to veterans, and assuring that everyone who came was treated well and their questions were answered. Talley also shared a personal story about a memento he carried through Vietnam.