New Chesco VA director wants to bring people together

Lawrence Davidson, an Iraq war vet, became director of Chesco office this month.
Lawrence Davidson, an Iraq war vet, became director of Chesco office this month.
Posted: August 31, 2014

When Lawrence Davidson was coordinator of West Chester University's veterans center, he called the Phillies for free tickets - even though the Iraq war veteran is a Yankees fan from outside Syracuse, N.Y.

Call it an act of devotion to his fellow veterans.

Davidson, who started as the new director of the Chester County Department of Veterans Affairs early this month, said he planned to focus on strengthening a sense of community among the county's veterans, who numbered about 32,650 in 2012.

He also wants people to know there is more than one Veterans Affairs office and that his is far removed from the national scandal over federal Veterans Affairs employees who tried to cover up long wait times for veterans to get services.

The trouble at the federal and regional levels has sullied the name of all veterans departments, especially since many people view Veterans Affairs as a monolithic operation, Davidson said.

"It's a name recognition game," said Davidson, who stepped in after the previous director retired.

And Davidson, 33, said he hopes to return pride in the name for veterans in the county.

Veterans agencies across the country have faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers and the public for several months. The Philadelphia VA benefits office was on the defensive this week after The Inquirer reported on an internal training guide that likened veterans to Oscar the Grouch, the trash can-dwelling Sesame Street character.

Davidson said the problems come down to mistakes by individuals, not by everyone who works in Veterans Affairs.

Davidson graduated with a master's degree in social work from West Chester University in mid-May, and county officials interviewed him a week later. Amid the ongoing scandal, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs resigned a week after that.

The county department handles death benefits for veterans. It helps with burial costs, keeps a grave registry, and distributes U.S. flags to put on graves on Memorial Day. The county also helps veterans access benefits through the state and federal veterans agencies.

"Everybody usually gets painted with the same brush," said Paul Andriole, who retired as director in early May. "But each has their own individual responsibilities."

Bad experiences at one level can keep veterans from seeking services at any of the others, said Andriole, a Vietnam veteran.

Less than a month into the job, Davidson sees himself as an outreach ambassador to the county's veterans, an extension of his previous work with the university veterans center.

"I don't know one person who said, 'I came to get help because I saw it on my Twitter feed,' " he said.

He said he plans to go into communities to bring veterans and their families to his department.

He also said he wants to make sure his office, which has three full-time employees, can handle all veterans who might come. Davidson said that was one lesson learned from the trouble at the VA: Don't make promises you can't keep.

He said he would like to see the county's various veterans groups work together.

He also wants to expand to the county level an oral history project he helped start at the university for student veterans. Adults and children who are on probation and veterans in the justice system could interview other veterans, an experience that could benefit everyone involved, he said.

In the short term, Davidson said, he wants to make sure veterans' first encounters with his office are positive.

"It's all the difference in the world," he said.


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207

@MichaelleBond

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