Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs
Many state agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, will face a rough road after further state budget cuts. (William W. Savage III)

Beyond a long weekend featuring lake parties and a Monday off work for many, Memorial Day serves as a time for Americans to remember those who have died in the U.S. military.

Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day, which the nation observes on Nov. 11 to honor living veterans of the U.S. military. Functionally, Americans remember veterans on both days — that is, if they remember them at all.

Thus, as this Memorial Day falls only three days after the end of the confounding first session of Oklahoma’s 56th Legislature, let’s look at what the state’s lawmakers accomplished for military families this year.

Laws designed to help veterans

To start with the potentially positive, HB 1197 by Rep. Tommy Hardin (R-Madill), Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) and Sen. Frank Simpson (R-Springer) was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin. The bill expands the definition of “veteran” to include anyone who “has served the full obligation for active duty, Reserve or National Guard service in the military, or received an early discharge for a medical condition, hardship or reduction in force.”

Harding and Simpson also passed HB 1198 into law, which instructs the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs to create and maintain a registry of all veterans in the state by Jan. 1, 2020, although it specifies that the expanded definition of “veteran” in HB 1197 does not apply. It also exempts a disabled veteran in said registry from having to apply for a state hunting and fishing licenses.

Last, SB 543, by Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore) and Simpson, authorizes the ODVA to create a State Veterans’ Cemetery System for veterans, their spouses and eligible dependents.

Financial realities limit progress

But although the ODVA had been authorized to create cemeteries for Oklahoma veterans and their families, the ability of the agency to start such a system remains unclear owing to — you guessed it — Oklahoma’s budget woes.

The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs took yet another appropriations cut for the Fiscal Year 2018 state budget. Although it was only a 0.68 percent cut to drop from $31,057,287 to $30,846,072 ($211,215 net loss), the agency’s budget has shrunk each of the past three years. It has shrunk significantly from when it stood at $40,282,600 for FY 2008, FY 2009 and FY 2010.

Veterans’ services already imperiled

While fewer troops will be returning home from war in 2018 than were 10 years ago, the level of care and services provided at the state’s seven veterans centers has been criticized over the past year.

From an April 2 article by The Oklahoman’s Randy Ellis:

Rocked by troubling deaths and a severe nursing staff shortage, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has quit accepting residents with behavioral issues at the Talihina Veterans Center and begun phasing out its 48-bed special needs unit.

The special needs unit is where care is provided to aggressive residents, residents with a history of walking away without telling staff, and veterans with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease who tend to wander.

“This is not our first choice to do,” said executive director Myles Deering, a retired major general. “We’re trying to serve the veterans in this community as best we can, but we can’t go on with limited staffing administering to the number of residents we have. It’s necessary that we make this move in order to protect the residents.”

The 175-bed Talihina Veterans Center has come under scrutiny in recent months because of two high-profile deaths. Vietnam War veteran Owen Reese Peterson, 73, was found with maggots in his body and later died from sepsis at the center on Oct. 3. About three months later, Leonard Smith, a 70-year-old advanced dementia resident, choked to death. A plastic bag was later found lodged in his throat.

The Talihina Veterans Center faces its own challenges, to be sure — remote location and building age, among others — but the writing is on the crumbling walls, bold enough for anyone who cares to read: Oklahoma is not doing all that it could to care for its veterans.

And while Rep. Brian Renegar (D-McAlester) has criticized the ODVA for spending $3 million on a new headquarters, lawmakers made little progress this session in addressing the agency’s funding and management issues.

How will ODVA create a cemetery system and a veterans registry with even fewer appropriated dollars? Well, that’s why the agency’s administrators and physicians make the big bucks.

With legislators once again asking the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs to do more with less, the agency may have to get creative.

So on this Memorial Day, let’s remember those who have fallen in the service of America, but let’s not wait until Veterans Day on Nov. 11 to ask whether Oklahoma is doing enough to care for the military community as a whole.