AUSTIN -- In President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, a veteran wounded in Afghanistan, drew the loudest applause of the night. Yet on veterans' issues, the speech was relatively light on substance and specifics.
"As this time of war draws to a close, a new generation of heroes returns to civilian life," President Obama said. "We’ll keep slashing that backlog, so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned, and our wounded warriors receive the health care, including the mental health care, that they need. We’ll keep working to help all our veterans translate their skills and leadership into jobs here at home. And we all continue to join forces to honor and support our remarkable military families."
Texas leaders and lawmakers gathered Friday morning in Austin for the Department of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars Mid-Winter Conference. Among the morning's speakers was Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who expressed disappointment with the degree of attention paid to veterans' issues in the Tuesday night speech.
"Well, I wish he would have talked about the scandal of veterans claims backlog that I've addressed and the importance of continuing to make progress on this and ending that backlog by 2015," said Cornyn.
While he acknowledged that progress has been made in addressing the backlog, Cornyn said it has not been nearly enough.
"I would have liked for him to highlight that issue more. It looked like a laundry list of all sorts of things that he wanted to talk about, but I think people's expectations are very low," said Cornyn. "Certainly mine are, in terms of what we're actually going to be able to accomplish, particularly with this crazy idea about him wanting to go it alone with his phone and pen and trying to do an end run around Congress."
While Texas has reduced its backlog from 70,000 cases in 2012 to around 31,000, Vietnam veteran and Department of Texas VFW Deputy State Inspector John Lozanski says the holdup is taking its toll. The frustration is particularly strong after so many promises to fix it have gone unfulfilled.
"While you're waiting for a determination to be made on that claim, you're still out of work," said Lozanski. "You don't have a job. There are no jobs out there. So, now you've got no money coming in. You've got no job. You've just come out of the military. You've got a family. So, it's a pretty hard situation to be in."
Addressing the group Friday, Gov. Rick Perry highlighted Texas' progress on veterans' issues, such as a program to grant college credit for skills and experience learned in the military. Perry also touted special job fairs which secured nearly 3,000 new jobs for veterans and their spouses in 2012. Yet the governor received the most applause after mentioning a law passed this legislative session extending property tax exemptions to the surviving spouses of 100 percent disabled veterans.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) has helped to guide such laws for years as chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Military Installations. Van de Putte claims success over the last ten years through creating strike force teams to address the backlog, helping returning veterans translate military experience into job certifications and creating peer-to-peer support networks to lower veteran suicide rates.
Now running for lieutenant governor, Van de Putte also accused incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) of dismissing veterans at a September GOP forum for lieutenant governor candidates in Houston. Dewhurst responded to a suggestion that there were too many Democratic committee chairs, "I've been reducing them, and not one of them is one of the critical committees."
"Ask any veteran in this room if they think veterans are unimportant in this state," said Van de Putte, who suggested Dewhurst was referring to veterans as well as to her. "Our committee may not be important, and I may not be important in his scheme of things, but veterans ought to be."
A former Air Force intelligence officer, Dewhurst is one of just two veterans fighting for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. The incumbent brushed aside Van de Putte's accusation Friday as "silly politics" and taken out of context.
"What I was saying is that we have a Republican majority in every committee, with the exception, quite frankly, of our veterans committee, because I don't want that to be partisan," said Dewhurst. "I want it to be bipartisan."
"The attack was that the Democrats were running the Senate, which is nonsense," Dewhurst said. "The Republicans and myself are in charge, but at the same time I represent all Texas. I represent Republicans and Democrats, and so, I want the best ideas put on the table. I want people to come forward. Let's work together, and by working together let's move this state forward. I'm only going to be letting the conservative, pro-growth ideas go forward, but let's work together and make Texas an even better state."
Dewhurst says compared to his Republican challengers, he's done more for veterans through his work as both lieutenant governor and previously as land commissioner. The lieutenant governor released new interim charges Friday
, directing the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Military Installations to study issues concerning veteran support services, professional licensing and mental health programs.
"If you've got a license and you can drive a water truck that's 100,000 pounds in the mountains of Afghanistan, for goodness sake, you can drive an 18-wheeler down the road," said Dewhurst.
Yet despite the political overtones, both Dewhurst and Van de Putte also acknowledged the other's efforts to improve services for Texas veterans. Dewhurst credited Van de Putte with doing a good job as committee chair, adding that they both share a passion for veterans' issues.
"I hope she won't let politics and our running in the general election get in the way, and for her to say things that may not be true," said Dewhurst. The lieutenant governor also complimented the work of his fellow veteran and Republican challenger, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
"The General Land Office and the Veterans Land Board has been the agency that's done more for Texas veterans than any other," Patterson told KVUE Friday.
As land commissioner, Patterson oversees the Veterans Land Board, which provides services to veterans such as low-interest home loans. Patterson traces the board's beginnings back more than 150 years.
"It's pretty interesting. In 1837, we had all these veterans. We didn't have any way to pay them. We gave them bonus and bounty certificates for land. So, we gave them land, and of course, that went through the land office," said Patterson. "Today, it's evolved into the Veterans Land Board program, where we provide low-interest loans to buy homes. We have veterans long-term care facilities. We have land loans. So, we're kind of like the [Veterans Administration] of Texas, but that started in 1837, after our war of independence."
While likewise lauding his opponent's work as lieutenant governor on veterans issues, Patterson said the state can dedicate more resources to help the claims process. A Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, Patterson says his connection to veterans is particularly personal.
"I've not only talked the talk. I've walked the walk," said Patterson.
With nearly 1.7 million veterans in Texans, Lozanski says all candidates are wise to listen to the needs of those who have served.
"If you don't take care of the people that went out to try to take care of you, and you don't treat them right, then you can't expect them to do anything right for you," said Lozanski.