BELTON — The Bell County Commissioners Court took the first steps toward hiring a veterans service officer at its weekly workshop meeting.
The move came after weeks of media scrutiny.
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said the county plans on providing office space at the Bell County Killeen Annex for a service officer. He also said the decision on who that officer is and when he or she will start working will be made before the end of the year.
The county will create a section on its website dedicated to providing veterans with informational resources, such as contact information for the various service organizations in the county. Commissioners decided to create a dedicated phone number for general inquiries, which will be answered by Yolanda Yarbrough, department director of the county’s archives and multiuse facility.
At the beginning of the meeting, Burrows reminded the members of the veterans service community that the commissioners previously met with organizational representatives to “talk about any unmet needs” and the county never heard back from them.
“If there are any unmet needs, let us know about them and we’ll try and fix them,” Burrows said.
His words were echoed by Precinct 4 Commissioner John Fisher, who said before the opening of the vet center in Harker Heights, county officials were under the impression it would be a “one-stop shop.”
Bill Parry, executive director of Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, said “there is no such thing as a one-stop shop for veterans anymore.”
Comparing the current state of veterans benefits to silos, Parry said veterans services have been compartmentalized, and administrators at different agencies and organizations handle different aspects of the benefits process.
“If veterans want to go to school, they see a service officer at Temple College,” Parry said. “If they’re looking for a job, they go to the Texas Workforce Commission.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Richard Cortese asked the assembled group “where one person from the county can fit in to keep the silos running.”
Bell County’s current veterans liaison, Jim Endicott, said his position operates as a referral and outreach service by putting veterans in touch with service officers at the Texas Veterans Commission, and he saw only “five or six veterans a year.”
Willie Browning, a volunteer veterans service officer who has worked out of the Killeen Heights Vet Center for years, proudly proclaimed she is “the reason people line up at 2 a.m.”
“I see veterans and widows before they ever darken the door at the VA,” Browning said. “As a service officer, I see veterans and they tell me they’ve never made a claim before.”
Browning estimated she sees 150 to 200 veterans a month, but that staff growth at the center will force her out of her office.
“I’ll be the first to tell anyone that I’m not a VA employee,” Browning said. “And I was told that, as of Dec. 1, they’ll need my office for a VA employee.”
Despite the plethora of veterans service organizations, most of which have an on-site service officer to assist veterans in filing paperwork, there are few trained people in the county, Browning said.
“There are seven veterans commission certified officers in Bell County. Six are at the Temple VA or on Fort Hood,” Browning said. “Service officers at the VFW or the American Legion are elected positions, just like they vote for post commander, and they don’t have to be trained.”
Rocky Hernandez, who serves as the post service officer for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9192 in Killeen, said in a phone interview that he and the service officer for Post 9191 are the only post service officers that he knows of who have gone through the Texas Veterans Commission training.
“Copperas Cove doesn’t have one; Harker Heights doesn’t have one,” Hernandez said. “The American Legion doesn’t have one. The Disabled American Veterans does have one but they only go through DAV training, which is one day long.”