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Dozens of Arkansas veterans get aid from forum; lawmaker, experts review benefits

by Frank E. Lockwood | October 30, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
David Witte, the Hot Springs Republican’s field representative for military and veterans affairs

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman held his first teletown hall for veterans last week, connecting via phone with roughly 1,100 people.

David Witte, the Hot Springs Republican's field representative for military and veterans affairs, was on hand for Tuesday's forum. Lisa Breun, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Little Rock Regional Benefit Office, also listened in and fielded questions.

"It's amazing how many calls and visits and correspondence we get from veterans who are having issues with their veterans' benefits, so we thought it would be a good outreach to have the telephone town hall and get as many people on there as we could and take as many questions as possible," Westerman said afterward.

Sixteen constituents were able to ask questions during the forum, which ran for about 45 minutes.

Dozens of other callers had things they wanted to ask, but there wasn't time to get to them all that evening.

"The ones we couldn't answer live on the air, we got information so we could follow up with people," Westerman said. "Hopefully it was educational and beneficial to folks who had issues with the VA to get to hear concerns that others had and to get answers from experts like Lisa and David."

In order to attract an audience, Westerman's office called about 10,000 veterans. Letters also were mailed to veterans inviting them to phone in.

In addition, the event aired on Facebook Live and was available for later viewing. As of Friday evening, more than 5,000 people had watched it there.

Online, the visuals were simple: the two men, sporting neatly pressed dress shirts and colorful ties, sitting in front of the U.S. and Arkansas flags.

As the number of callers and viewers climbed, Witte could see his workload expanding.

By the time they had finished, 70 veterans had left questions or comments. Witte, a Lutheran minister and Arkansas National Guard chaplain, said he'd be contacting each one.

Normally, Witte juggles between 110 and 120 cases related to veterans who live in the 4th Congressional District covering southwest Arkansas.

Sometimes, it's a constituent who needs a copy of his military records or a medal that was earned but never awarded. Other times, it's a veteran with questions about health care or benefits.

"The system's pretty complex. Veterans don't know whether or not they're eligible," Witte said.

Sometimes, the answer is clear-cut. "If you have a service-connected disability ... you can obtain VA care for that," Witte said. If it isn't service-related, "it comes down to income eligibility," he added.

Proving that the injury is service-related can sometimes be a challenge, Witte added.

Occasionally, it means trying to decipher decades-old doctor's notes -- words that are barely legible.

Witte, who was in Washington for the forum, predicted he'd have a heavier workload once he returned to Westerman's office in Hot Springs.

He'd picked up roughly 15 new cases earlier in the week and expected he'd have 20 more by the time he'd reached out to the participants in Tuesday's town hall.

"This touched a lot of veterans. Which is a good thing. What we're here to do is serve veterans, and we want to help them with whatever issues they've got," he said.

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