Whether it's providing a comprehensive source of information on available resources or expanding affordable housing opportunities, more needs to be done to help Howard County veterans, a group of more than a dozen county veterans and their family members said this week.
They shared their concerns and ideas for how to address them with the Howard County Commission for Veterans and Military Families at a public meeting Monday, Feb. 27, held at the Central Branch Library in Columbia.
The forum was the first of seven such meetings the commission, created last year, plans to hold over the next few months to collect information on veterans' issues.
"Our hope is as the word spreads and the network expands … we'll start hitting the pockets of the people who really need help, (who) have no idea where to go," commission co-chairman Jerome Jones said. He said dates for the other six meetings will be released soon.
The main problem both commission members and residents identified at the Feb. 27 meeting is no record is kept of how many veterans there are in Howard County, nor is there a method for connecting with veterans, especially those most in need of assistance.
"I cannot tell you how many veterans there are in Howard County, and it's sad," commission member Reginald Avery said.
Reed Kohberger, a Columbia resident who served in the Coast Guard, said he was particularly curious about how many homeless veterans there are in Howard County and what action is being taken to help them and other veterans in need.
"I'd like to see us really go out there and try to target people and ask them, 'Are you a veteran and do you need help?'" he said.
Kohberger also asked about how the county could provide a comprehensive list of services and resources available to veterans.
"It's daunting for somebody that's coming out of the military and doesn't know what's going on to try and navigate all this," he said. "There are literally too many avenues of help."
Columbia Association Board Member Cynthia Coyle, who retired from the military, agreed there should be an easier way to promote the services offered to veterans. For example, she said, CA offers free membership packages for family members of deployed military.
"This is a pretty impressive thing … but communicating that effectively to the people who are deploying is difficult," she said.
ID card suggested
Columbia resident Patrick Gallagher said he would like to see the county issue a veterans' identification card. He said the program could be modeled after one in Atlantic County, N.J., in which a free ID card is issued to any veteran who registers discharge papers with the county clerk's office.
"The payoff to that ... is many of the stores offer a discount for buying things if you are a veteran," Gallagher said. "(But ) veterans don't in general have cards."
Commission member John Beck said the group, as it is finalizing its website, is putting together a list of local business that offer discounts for veterans.
Both Kohberger and Coyle mentioned the need to create more affordable housing opportunities for veterans.
Coyle also said the state should provide incentives for retired military personnel to remain in Maryland. She said the tax rate here, compared to other states "is ridiculous" and that many veterans retire in states that have greater incentives.
Chris Wertman, a River Hill resident, said he serves on the Community Advisory Council to the Board of Education and has noticed some provisions in the high school grading policy that have "a tremendous impact on military families," who tend to move often.
The policy, which is being presented to the Board of Education for revision in March, says that if a student misses more than 5 percent of class days (equivalent to nine classes), the principal can decide to fail the student for the year.
Wertman noted the policy makes it tough on students who transfer to a school after the first few weeks of a grading period to get credit for their classes. Last year, he said, 884 students fell into that category, though it is unclear how many were from military families.
Columbia resident Earl Wilkinson urged the commission to leverage the county's "brain power" to address the various concerns that were discussed at the meeting.
He noted: "We need to find a way to communicate with each other, maybe publish some of the problems, options and ideas."