Rob Fleege, veterans liaison for U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, recently updated members of American Legion Post 108 and other veterans about what the congressman is doing to address issues facing former soldiers.
And, he gave the veterans a chance to share what was on their minds, during a Jan. 12 session at the Harvester United Methodist Church in Land O’ Lakes.
Fleege, a veteran himself, briefed his fellow comrades on a number of issues being tackled by Bilirakis.
One of the congressman’s chief efforts involves finding ways to prevent veteran suicide, Fleege said.
“We’ve created a congressional working group whose sole purpose is to figure out veteran suicide,” he added.
The group is made up of mental health experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) who have served in the military and can understand those they treat.
The first part of the process is analyzing the Transition Assistance Program and what improvements could be made there.
The program’s goal is to help returning troops to reintegrate back into civilian life.
According to Veterans Affairs, anywhere from 11 percent to 20 percent of soldiers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder during any given year.
Bilirakis wants to help these individuals, but his office is equally invested in those who served in conflicts decades past – such as the Vietnam War.
“Why are older veterans killing themselves?” Fleege asked.
The congressman also is making efforts to pass the Blue Water Navy Act.
The bill would grant health care and disability benefits to naval officers exposed to the Agent Orange toxin during the Vietnam War.
The bill passed in the House last year, but failed to pass in the Senate.
Bilirakis remains hopeful that there is bipartisan support to address veteran concerns, Fleege said.
Attendees also had the chance to comment or ask questions about issues important to them.
One issue that came up involved the current federal government shutdown.
Hunter Knight Anstine is a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard and current commanding officer of American Legion Post 108.
His son currently serves in the Coast Guard and is personally feeling the consequences of the shutdown.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong when the fifth branch of the military, people who can’t just call in sick, are not getting paid,” the veteran said.
Other members in the audience raised concerns about affordable housing and finding work.
Fleege said Bilirakis is working with the Department of Urban Development — to address the housing concerns through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.
This not only assists veterans in getting stable homes, but also pinpoints the issues that lead to homelessness, such as mental illness and substance abuse.
“We’re going to have another job fair,” Fleege added. “This is a continuing initiative we have every year to get all the veterans in one spot and get services with companies that are hiring.”
The liaison also noted that through a veteran advisory committee, Bilirakis is seeking jobs for veterans that offer livable wages.
When asked about the veterans who don’t qualify for VA services, Fleege mentioned the Mission Act.
The act, passed in 2018, assists veterans in getting adequate medical care through a civilian market when it is not provided by the VA.
Fleege’s passion for assisting fellow veterans stems partially from personal experience.
He served 18 months in Iraq as a sergeant, and has had personal experience with PTSD.
He went back to school and received a master’s degree in public health and a master’s degree in social work, specializing in mental health.
“I needed to figure out what happened to me,” Fleege said.
“Getting this background in mental health started to peel back the layers of why I was crying in inappropriate times,” he said.
Fleege decided to dedicate himself to working with other veterans to help them achieve a healthier life, and after he worked in Veterans Affairs for nine years, Bilirakis offered him the opportunity to advocate for former soldiers in the 12th congressional district.
As the meeting concluded, Fleege invited anyone with questions or concerns to reach back to him.
He also urged anyone struggling with PTSD to seek help from mental health organizations, such as the Veterans Alternative in Pasco County.
Finally, he reminded his comrades: “We have charged ourselves, as veterans, to take care of our brothers and sisters.”
Published January 23, 2019