Authorities say Florida is not prepared to be the nation's leader in ex-military.
by J. TAYLOR RUSHING, Capital Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE – State legislators in charge of veterans' affairs are continuing to hear the news they are dreading: A crowd is coming.
Already the state with the fastest-growing population of military veterans, 1.8 million ex-military call Florida home. But a growing influx of younger veterans expected from the Iraq War may soon strain the system.
Within a decade, the state is expected to overtake California's 2.2 million veterans as the most in the country.
"The need is becoming so acute," Florida Veterans' Affairs Secretary LeRoy Collins Jr., a retired Navy rear admiral, told the Senate Military Affairs and Domestic Security Committee this month…
Rep. Stan Jordan, chairman of the House Military & Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the state is hustling to ease restraints and free funding to deal with the coming boom.
"A lot of things are going to be coming down on us at once, and we're not prepared," the Jacksonville Republican said. "But I'm not saying we're not going to be prepared."
Much of the unpreparedness is due to bureaucratic conflicts between state and federal officials. Jordan, for instance, is trying to resolve a standoff threatening the construction of a new, 120-bed state veterans nursing home in St. Johns County. State legislators approved $6 million of the $17 million price tag – the remaining funds are federal – but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently issued a mandate that only one veteran can be housed for each room, cutting the capacity in half before it can even be built. Jordan is working through Florida's congressional delegation to work out a compromise.
Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Green Cove Springs, a 20-year Navy veteran and former executive director of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs, is also ready with a quick "no" when asked if Florida is ready. She is pushing a $1.7 billion business loan program to assist veterans returning from tours of duty restart or expand their businesses. The bill passed the Legislature two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Gov. Charlie Crist says he supports it.
Similarly, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, is pushing the state to better enforce provisions that require veterans to receive preferential consideration for jobs.
The influx is expected in two groups, and both are expected to be problematic for different reasons. Most will be returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and advances in medical technology mean many of them will survive wounds that would have killed earlier generations of soldiers. At the same time, there is also a surge of older veterans: State figures show 54 percent of the veterans seen at a veterans' facility in Florida in 2005 were 65 or older.
Crist is among many state leaders who say one of the few benefits of the recent national publicity surrounding the poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington has been to focus legislators' attention on veterans' needs.
"It is awfully important that we give them the very best treatment possible," Crist said.
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