A joint meeting of members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) was likened to a tribunal as veterans stated their cases to Williamsburg County Veteran’s Affairs Officer Gusta Ganes. The purpose of the April 11, meeting held at the McClary-Cole VFW Post 6500 in Kingstree was to discuss and resolve veterans’ complaints, and according to Post 6500 Commander Dentist Harvin have been heard for years. Several members of the legislative delegation were invited. However, because of prior commitments, the only delegate to show was House of Representative Ronnie Sabb.
Harvin said in September 2011, several concerns were brought to the members’ attention. Among the concerns, Harvin said were a dissatisfaction of the services and the operations as a whole. However, it is acknowledged in a letter written to Howard Metcalf, Director of South Carolina Division of Veteran’s Affairs by Harvin and American Legion Post 8 Commander John Spearman that some veterans have received adequate assistance.
Several veterans presented personal accounts that ranged from claims never being processed to veterans being left on their own to locate participating medical providers. Harvin said he has processed over 200 claims for veterans this year alone.
Kingstree resident Auddie Brown’s ordeal began in 2002 when he filed paperwork for an appointment with the VA in Columbia through the local office. Brown was seen in 2008. However, a later experience through the Florence office was a study in contrast. “I was there about 15 minutes. I had an appointment for the next morning in Columbia at 7:30,” said Brown. “That’s the way a veteran’s office is supposed to operate.”Tim McCrea works with local veterans with disabilities. McCrea said one of the problems he has encountered is a lack of transportation for veterans to and from the veteran’s hospital. “I’ve heard a lot of reasons why, but recently I was told it was a problem within the county,” said McCrea, who must arrange rides through the DAV in Florence and Charleston. “I checked with other counties, I used Sumter and Florence - they keep saying why? And that’s the question I keep putting up. Why don’t we have transportation to get our veteran’s back and forth to their appointments?” According to a 2008 census report, Williamsburg County is home to over 3,000 veterans. For fiscal year 2012, the county budgeted $69,254.34 for Veteran’s Affairs. Of that $64,059.34 is budgeted for full-time salaries, insurance and retirement.
Another concern was Gane’s lack of participation at certain programs, which Harvin said reflects a lack of representation from the local veteran’s office. “That’s not right,” said Harvin. “We have a county VA office and he should be here to represent our veterans.” Harvin also claimed that with the exception of one program, Ganes has not invited the VFW to participate in any service related event. “In April when it was determined that we would not have our Veterans represented negatively, just to come up and do a parade,” said Harvin. He also claimed Ganes invited Harvin and his members to participate in a Veteran’s Day program three days before the event. “The program is Monday and Friday you walk in and say, “I’ll give you 10 minutes to say and do what you have to,” That’s not a proper invitation. We should have prior notice.”
A mental health counselor with the Department of Mental Health didn’t have a story but she did have a conflict. She warned of a possible situation on the horizon that could affect everyone - servicemen and women returning from battle - many who will be facing physical, as well as psychological scars. “A storm is coming,” she said. “We saw a wave with the Vietnam veterans. But we’re going to see a storm, a hurricane and a blizzard coming at us all at once.” She said if the framework isn’t in place then chaos will ensue. “ It’s coming...it’s coming. We need to come together - the American Legion, the DMV, the VFW, these county offices - we’ve got to start doing our jobs now.” After hearing the complaints, Ganes stood to address the group. “The way ya’ll talk, I don’t even know the guy you’re talking about,” said Ganes who was visibly angry. “Because anybody that comes into our office, we service them as well as if it was my own brother.” Ganes disputed their claims as he pointed to several veterans in the room. “Charles, you know. You came in the other day. How did I treat you? I treated you just like you was a king or something. I gave you all the information you needed.” Ganes, who has been with the veteran’s office since 1991, said he has never heard a complaint until the last year and a half. “And that’s all right in here,” said Ganes. “And what you are saying, all of you - is saying your calling (the legislative delegation) liars because if they would have had that many complaints in the last 20 years, surely I wouldn’t have been there. Its only been in the past year and a half that ya’ll are trying to stab me in the back.” Ganes reminded the group that he couldn’t fix something that’s wrong if he’s not aware of the problem. He addressed several issues including transportation, saying he had the opportunity to get a van but he didn’t have anyone to drive it. “I only had five or six people from the VFW and American Legion and they couldn’t do it because most of them was too old to drive out of town.”
Some veterans stood up for Ganes. “All the problems that you all put forth here, I don’t think Jesus Christ could solve them all,” said a Vietnam vet who praised Ganes. “I go to the VA in Charleston and I know several veterans that don’t speak nothing but good about this man right here. And I’m one of them. There is nothing wrong with the job this man is doing.” Harvin would later thank Representative Sabb for attending. “We just want the veterans to be heard for once,” said Harvin. “So someone can see there are concerns in Williamsburg County, concerns at the veteran’s office. What we’re trying to find is the right solution and what it will take to fix it.” Sabb will take his notes, as well as recommendations made by the veterans back to the delegation for review.