Norwich - In two weeks, every town hall in Connecticut will be required by law to have someone who can answer questions for veterans, but the law doesn't give a lot of details.
At its meeting Wednesday, Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments' representatives asked the state's Veterans Affairs commissioner what their towns must and can do. They wondered if there were opportunities to have a regional solution rather than creating a new position in each municipality.
The law, effective Oct. 1, states that all municipalities must have a contact person available to answer veterans' questions or refer them to resources, from mental health counseling to property tax information. That might include assisting veterans in how to find benefits or telling them where to get help in a crisis.
"I really feel in many ways this is an excellent answer to the outreach we need to do," said Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz, who was invited to present at the regional planning agency's meeting. Schwartz added that a large number of veterans live in eastern Connecticut, which is also generally the more rural part of the state.
Residents visiting town or city halls should clearly be informed of the contact's name and phone number, but the liaison position need not be paid - a volunteer could step forward or a staff member could be trained, according to Schwartz.
Some municipalities have begun appointing a contact person, and the council, which represents 20 municipalities in the region, asked if a joint veterans committee could provide regional services for several towns. Under the law, the veterans' liaisons will receive training, but no funding, from the state.
Schwartz explained that veterans need a specific person to contact, not a general phone number for a committee. In response to a question later, she said the department had hoped each town would appoint its own contact person, but the law does not prevent a few towns from jointly appointing one contact person, as long as each town informs residents of the contact.
Town representatives also questioned how to provide the same level of service for all veterans, particularly in smaller towns with smaller staffs.
Schwartz said the VA envisions the position as a way for veterans to reach out to people in towns who they may already know, since they likely do not personally know representatives in the veterans affairs office.
"We assure you we're not asking you to be experts," she said. "We're asking you to be listening and referring."
Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden supported the program, saying "all of us believe in the concept," and offered examples of veterans who had visited the town hall in the small town for assistance. But he questioned if the law potentially pulls away from the regionalization and cost reductions that the council supports. He wondered if the position could evolve into a paid position.
Schwartz said that the law was intended to make veterans more comfortable; Massachusetts has a paid contact person in every city and town, which Connecticut cannot currently afford. She explained later that she doesn't envision it becoming a paid position.
Throughout the discussions, many stressed the importance of providing vital services for the people who have volunteered.
"The issue of suicide is the biggest issue we have to deal with now, and people not getting the help they need in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder is dangerous," said Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten, also a state senator. "It puts not only the individual at risk, but the community also."
Schwartz handed out cards to inform the officials about the state's Military Support Program, which provides 24-hour assistance for military and their families.
The program offers many services that are not "pro forma" for the veterans affairs department. For example, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have received therapy with their families under the program.
Schwartz also offered the Veterans Affairs' district office in Norwich Town Hall as a "hub" that could back up towns and offer conference calls and meetings for the liaisons.
She invited all the officials to participate in the training. COG members offered the Norwich COG office for the training.