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October 17, 2017

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Q+A: Legislator aims to reduce suicides, boost employment among Nevada veterans

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Assemblyman Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards was a Navy commander before he became a member of the Nevada Assembly, and he’s become a leading voice on veterans issues in the Legislature since being elected in 2014.

Edwards started the Nevada Veterans Council, an advocacy and support group that has grown to about 50 individuals and representatives from veterans organizations, and hopes to found a veterans caucus this year.

Going into his second regular session, Edwards sat down for an interview Tuesday in which he discussed the veteran-related issues he’ll propose this year in Carson City, the state of veterans affairs in Nevada and his outlook on what the Trump presidency will mean for those who’ve served in the armed forces.

Here are excerpts:

What are some of the concerns that veterans have brought forward to you since the last legislative session (in 2015):

The biggest concerns are, one, the rate of suicide that is happening in the veteran community. On average, every third day a veteran in Nevada kills themselves. And they’re trying to figure out what all the causes are, but there’s just no good data. The Veterans Administration has been working on it, some of the states have been working on it, but it’s just a mess right now. I think the other issues they’re concerned about are employment and also education. One of the things we’re finding with employers is that some have this impression that military folks are all broken, they’re tired, they can’t do anything. And that’s simply not true. There are some who absolutely have suffered some horrendous things overseas, and they will need lifetime help, however most of the rest are doing just fine and are ready to get back into the employment field. They’re ready to add value for any company that will hire them. So we’re trying to get that message out to the business community, that veterans may be bruised but they’re not broken, and the bruises will not affect anything that the businesses need them to do.

What can you do at the state level to improve that situation? There are already incentives for employers to hire veterans, correct?

There are some, and we put another one in last session where you get a tax credit for the veterans you hire. But sometimes, I think we just need education and awareness. It was interesting talking to some of the trade unions. They talk about how they love getting military guys in, because they’re much more focused, they’re much more reliable, much more dependable, hardworking. So that’s one of the things I’m actually working on right now is how to help the trade unions get access to those who are in the military who are either ready to retire or are going to move back into civilian life. I’m meeting in two days with the unions to come up with the grand scheme of what can we do in order to get the military folks lined up with the unions.

Have you prefiled any pieces of legislation related to veterans this year? Please describe them.

With veterans services, I want to make sure we have more VSOs (veterans service offices), which will come under the Nevada Department of Veterans Services. That’s a matter of getting people properly trained to understand how the system works so that they can help file the claims, process the claims, track them and make sure that if there’s a problem, they can help solve it. That’s crucial because there’s a backlog for services. I don’t have a specific number (of additional VSO positions) right now. I’ve got an idea, but I’m going to be working with the director of Veterans Services to come up with what is actually doable.

Going back to the suicide issue, what’s your initiative on that?

Some of it is going to be educating people who are going to be perhaps in a position to identify somebody who’s showing signs of it — nurses, people in emergency rooms, the police in some cases. It’s about helping them understand the veteran community better.

What would your legislation do?

It would probably involve hiring a couple of additional personnel to establish the training and get it out to the communities, but also requiring public employees as part of their annual training to go through it.

Do you think veterans are more satisfied or less satisfied with services today than they were eight or 10 years ago?

There’s continued frustration with the mentality at the Veterans Administration when it comes to their disability claims. They still face obstacles at every twist and turn, and the VA is just not as helpful as they ought to be simply providing customer service. But once they get into the system, then things tend to improve considerably. I want to make sure I draw that distinction, because while the VA on the grand scheme is having difficulty, there are some successes with some of their satellite facilities that serve their communities very well. I’ve had several of my own constituents comment that they get great service at the VA satellite facility in Henderson.

What other frustrations are you hearing?

That the business community does not understand what they can bring to the table — that there are going to be more deployments or the business is going to lose them. I think there will be a whole lot less of that if the new (presidential) administration does build up the military to a bigger size, because they’re not going to need the National Guard, the Air National Guard and so on for as much. But the business community needs to know that they shouldn’t worry about that so much but should focus on the fact that these guys can bring a lot of value and great service to their company.

Speaking of the new administration, are you feeling more optimistic about veterans issues? Or less?

I’m extremely optimistic. And when Donald Trump picked (retired) Gen. James Mattis to be the secretary of defense, I was absolutely exuberant. Gen. Mattis is a fantastic leader.

But are you concerned that Trump was making promises on the campaign trail that he either couldn’t keep or had no intention of keeping?

I think when it comes to the veterans issues, he’s going to push that extremely hard. And one of the good signs that we’re noticing is that he’s not simply assigning somebody to the VA in order to have somebody there, he’s doing a thoughtful process for who can actually lead this organization and fix it. He’s absolutely looking for the right person, so that should give everybody hope.

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