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Governors focus on guardsmen

Gregoire shares success of Washington program for returning troops

The leaders of several Western states are interested in following Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s lead in tracking National Guard members returning from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, checking on everything from health to employment needs.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said, “I want to go back and make sure that’s what we’re doing.”

It was just one of an array of solutions Western governors discussed for how to help veterans returning in a dismal job market, as they convened the annual conference of the Western Governors Association on Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene.

“We always tell these soldiers as they’re shipping out that it’s our job to take care of their families while they’re being deployed, it’s their job to get over there and get the mission accomplished,” said Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, the association’s chairman.

More than 2,800 individuals from Western states were deployed to Iraq last fall in a single deployment and likely will be returning home this fall, Otter said. “We need to be prepared as well as we can.”

The governors heard from top military officials and others that privacy concerns and other legal constraints currently keep the military from providing post-service training to members while they’re serving, and keep states from even knowing where disabled veterans are so they can reach out to them with help. Legislation is pending in Congress to lift some of those constraints against training.

Gregoire said the program to track returning National Guard members for at least a year has been “unbelievably successful in our state. But again we have all the information, so it’s not a problem for us. … Our state and every department really wants to be there and catch these people and be of help to them.”

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was taken aback to hear that the military is now precluded from providing post-service job training. “Wow, that isn’t what they told them when they recruited them,” he said. “They say, ‘We’re going to train you for the rest of your life, that we’re going to get you a skill.’ ”

Gregoire said she pledged to visit her state’s National Guardsmen who were deployed to Iraq, and when she did, she was shocked to hear that their concerns, at base after base, focused on whether they’d be able to support their families when they returned home.

“We’ve worked very hard in Washington state to take the training they had, get it recognized by the state and get them into really good, family-wage jobs,” she said. “The goal here is for us as governors and those of you who’ve joined us today to walk out of here with some really actionable ideas that we can take home and implement.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson told the group that more than 27 percent of returning veterans age 18-24 “do not have a job today – that’s more than one out of four. So I think we can stipulate that this is a problem.”

Education programs, including the “new G.I. Bill,” are good, Nicholson said. “The problem is not that, the problem is jobs. Twenty-seven percent of these young returning guys and gals are unable to find a job.”

Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hedelund said, “This is a very, very important subject,” and said the military is now involved in the first major revamp to its transitional assistance program for veterans in 19 years.

“I think everybody in this room can acknowledge that a lot has happened in our country in 19 years, so it’s time to start looking at this,” he said.

The governors of Idaho, Washington, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Arizona participated in the conference Wednesday; the governor of Oregon arrived later Wednesday, and the governor of Colorado will join the group today. Also attending the meeting of the 19-state group are state and federal agency officials; Canadian officials including Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer; lobbyists; industry people; and lawmakers.

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