Veterans group wants vets in city's VA office

Posted: September 27, 2013

A VETERANS GROUP wants to see some of its kind - actual vets - working at Philadelphia's self-described "one-stop shop" for the city's nearly 80,000 veterans.

The Veterans Advisory Commission enjoys prime real estate on the first floor of City Hall, but neither of its two full-time employees has served in the military. Ari Merretazon and his faith-based nonprofit group, Pointman Soldiers Heart Ministry, say that could alienate returning soldiers.

"There is no greater citizen than someone who is willing to lay down their lives for their fellow citizens and their families," said Merretazon, a decorated Army veteran of Vietnam. "When they come back from situations of war and tragedy, they want someone to talk to who has had that experience."

Ministry officials point to a 1950s-era state law that mandates a director of veterans affairs be created for each county. The city's commission has an eight-member board and a chairman. All are veterans, but none is paid or keeps regular hours at the City Hall office.

No veterans were there when the Daily News called and later visited the office during business hours yesterday.

Joyce McKeown, half of the commission's full-time staff, has helped vets with VA claims and has connected them with employment and education services for nearly three decades. She said her office has seen nearly twice as many vets since the current, more-visible office was established last year after being tucked away in obscure corners of City Hall for decades.

Wanda Pate, a former constituency-services specialist, was hired in March 2012 as the other half of City Council President Darrell Clarke's expansion of city vet services and was sent through required VA certification training. She said a full-time director would be a welcome addition, but was unsure how well some veterans would adjust to an office environment.

"Say you have a veteran coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan and they have PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder]," she said. "Maybe they don't like being in enclosed spaces for long. If they worked here, they'd be behind a desk all day filing claims."

Pate said Merretazon and his "violent and radical" group do more harm than good.

Merretazon last week received a Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Brain Trust Award for his service to veterans.

At another agency that serves veterans, the nonprofit Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, in Old City, nearly three-quarters of the staff are veterans.

"There's an empathy factor," said Debby Derricks, its chief of organizational development.

Meanwhile, Jane Roh, Clarke's communications director, said Pate has no shortage of heart.

"Her father, mother and brother were all veterans, and she cared for all three of them until the end of their lives," said Roh, adding that Pate has a degree in psychology from La Salle University. "In total, she spent 25 years navigating the maze of services available to veterans."

Merretazon and his group plan to hold an open forum tomorrow at Triumph Baptist Church in North Philly to air grievances. They've extended invitations to area vets and to city officials.


On Twitter: @jad_sleiman

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