May 21, 2024

Jasper County veterans say VA administrator needs reinforcements

Commission meeting sees outpour of support for Alyssa Wilson and a demand for more resources

Alyssa Wilson, administrator of Jasper County Veterans Affairs, speaks to visitors of the Jasper County Veterans Affairs Commission meeting on May 8 inside the conference room of the county administration building.

Veterans typically do not mince words, and the ones who showed up to the most recent Jasper County Veterans Affairs Commission meeting last week did not hold back their feelings over what they perceived as a lack of support for two-year administrator Alyssa Wilson, who at times was in tears listening to feedback.

Josh Davis, a veteran who arrived to the meeting in crutches to support Wilson, said, “The people that came here today shows that she needs help. She’s overloaded. I just had surgery a week ago and I shouldn’t be here. But I came over here for her.”

Paul Padilla, also a veteran, suggested Wilson already has enough work to do but is being asked to do more work, saying, “She has all that paperwork there for about two weeks. She’s up to her eyeballs in paperwork. But let’s give her more paperwork to do to track her paperwork?”

Judy Jones, a direct but soft-spoken woman whose sister has received support from Wilson, said, “We 100 percent — maybe even 150 percent — support Alyssa. She’s doing a wonderful job and this board needs to know that. They need to leave her alone and let her do her job.”

It was the largest meeting turnout the commissioners had ever seen. There were more than 30 people in attendance and it had quickly become a standing room only event. Most of the folks who gathered in the administration building conference room were veterans. Young and old. They all agreed on one thing:

Wilson needs reinforcements.

To them, she is a beloved champion of all veterans who has proven she will fight tooth and nail to get them the financial benefits they deserve. Ever since she was hired in as the head of Jasper County Veterans Affairs, Wilson hit the ground running with her valuable expertise and followed through for her veterans.

Prior to her joining Jasper County, some veterans felt disenfranchised or ignored. While many received their benefits, others had hit brick walls and lost hope that the department — or, perhaps, their government — would ever come through for them again. Wilson turned things around in part because she knows the game.

Somewhere underneath all that bureaucracy and the piles of endless paperwork is a veteran’s certification to receive his or her benefits. Wilson knows it takes more than a shovel to get to the buried treasure that will make her veterans whole. She is patient and she is persistent. Some might even call her obsessive.

Others, like Lisa Van Ryswyk, may call her passionate. Todd Magel of KCCI Des Moines released a report in mid-April about how Van Ryswyk’s father, Ken Van Veen, was recognized by the federal government as a Vietnam veteran only after he died. Van Veen was seeking disability benefits.

Magel reported that Wilson helped Van Ryswyk fill out forms and ignoe repeated denials from the feds, who later discovered their mistake.

But it was too late. Wilson told Channel 5 she wished these stories were rare.

It is clear Wilson is very protective of her veterans. To her they are more than just clients, and she feels very strongly that because of their service to their country they are entitled to emergency financial assistance or application approvals for VA compensation and VA pensions. Veterans say her work speaks for itself.

In August 2023, Newton News reported that Wilson’s department had handled 1,042 veteran appointments in fiscal year 2022. The past quarter of that year saw 328 appointments between scheduled visits, walk-ins and home visits. Veterans affairs also brought in more than $2 million for veterans that past quarter.

On average, the office brings in more than $780,000 per month for veterans. Sometimes it’s upwards of $1 million per month.

VETERANS ARRIVE IN FORCE TO DEFEND ADMINISTRATOR

Which may be why folks were so quick to react to the Jasper County Veterans Affairs Commission agenda on May 8. Phrases like “administrator’s activity report,” “home visit guidelines” and “work log” did not sit well with those veterans. Initially, they saw it as unfair scrutiny and ignorance of the real problem.

Apart from Wilson handling the bulk of the work, she is assisted by employee Josh Price, who splits his time between veterans affairs and general assistance. But the workload is still too much for one-and-a-half people to handle. It was too much back when Keith Thorpe, a VSO, was helping out in the office.

Things got so busy that Wilson told the board of supervisors she may need Thorpe to transition from an hourly position to a salaried position.

Even the administrator’s activities report included in the agenda packet shows that while Wilson is maintaining a high level of appointments — a total of 123 in April — she is not able to answer every phone call. She was able to answer 79 calls and make 104 outgoing calls, but she missed 254 calls this past month.

More than 2,000 veterans live in Jasper County.

When commissioners finally reached the agenda items that attendees were fired up about, veterans and their families did not hold back. The relaxed decorum resulted in fiery anecdotes and on occasion Wilson sounded motherly when telling some guests to watch their language. They were frustrated.

On the defensive, commissioners tried their best to calm the storm that had been building and building. Outside the administration offices the temperature had skyrocketed to the high 70s and the overcast horizon was blinding white. Inside the conference room the clouds had moved in above us, waiting to burst.

HOME VISIT DISCUSSION LEADS TO WORKLOAD TALKS

Discussions over the upcoming Memorial Day ceremony and home visit guidelines had loosened everybody up, parting those dark clouds overhead. But only just. If anything, it was an ice breaker that encouraged folks who had been wanting to speak to speak up and speak loud.

Judy Jones spoke in favor of home visits. Jones said her sister is in need of that assistance, and Wilson only stays as long as necessary to complete the appointment. She went on to commend Wilson for doing “a wonderful job,” to which the room collectively agreed. Affirmative. Amen.

“I don’t like to see her mistreated,” Jones said.

Jerry Nelson, chair of the Jasper County Veterans Affairs Commission, tried to interrupt saying that “is not where we’re going right now,” and he later said the commission is not suggesting to end home visits but rather define what qualifies as a home visit and set the ensuing procedures for Wilson to follow.

Commissioner Ed Spangenburg also suggested guidelines would help keep Wilson’s safety in mind, noting it is a potential risk for the administrator.

“Not everybody is a perfect individual,” Spangenburg said. “Everybody knows this. You can’t just expect to put somebody out there in somebody’s home and nobody knows where that individual is … I’m not saying any of you people are bad. I’m not saying I’m bad. But we all know there is always one individual.”

Jones said she understands the commission is not advocating for ending home visits, but she wanted to let them know how much she appreciates the practice. Wilson said it would be challenging to notify a random person of a home visit because telling someone who she is meeting could violate confidentiality.

Spangenburg said Iowa Code allows Wilson to share that information with the commissioners, but the commissioner cannot publish the names of veterans or their families who receive benefits. Commissioners later proposed Wilson ask the sheriff about checking in with county dispatch through the non-emergency line.

Wilson said a home visit is reserved for situations where there is no other way to assist the veteran. Oftentimes she makes it a point to not leave for home visits until after 3 p.m., which is when the walk-in traffic usually dies down at Wilson’s office. Frankly, she does not have much time for home visits, she said.

Another role of her position is to go to other meetings in the community, which may in turn be beneficial to her veterans. But the workload is too demanding.

“I can’t even go to the meetings that I should be going to as the administrator,” Wilson said. “I should be able to go to Jasper County Cares (Coalition) meetings … Other administrators are always at events and functions, learning new things, getting new resources. I can’t do that.”

Nelson said, “That’s why we brought additional help in.”

“But I’m not getting additional help out of that current situation.”

“Then that’s something we’ll work on.”

COMMISSIONERS WANT WORK STUDY TO JUSTIFY FUTURE REQUEST

When the discussion moved on to the work log, Nelson began by saying his choice of language for this particular agenda item may not have been the best. He explained the work log was more in line with a work study, something he said most Maytagers would be familiar with.

“It’s more of a what are you doing during the day so we can track how much business is being conducted so we know,” Nelson said, noting it may help determine how much more assistance Wilson needs and could help in justify adding another full-time employee in veterans affairs.

Nelson suggested the work study is not intended to measure Wilson’s productivity in a negative way; it should be able to track how much work is being accomplished. If more work needs to be accomplished, it gives the commission cause to look for more personnel or equipment.

“That is the intent of what we’re doing,” Nelson said, suggesting the commission needs strong evidence before asking county supervisors for more resources. “…I can sit here and say Alyssa’s busy. I can’t show a quantitative number to outside folks that we gotta ask for resources from if I say she’s busy.”

Josh Davis interjected, “I think the people that came here today shows that.”

Commissioner Marta Ford reiterated Nelson’s point that the Jasper County Board of Supervisors ultimately makes the decision over whether veterans affairs needs extra help. But Nelson did say the crowd of veterans who showed up to this very meeting will make its way to the board. It will get their attention, at least.

“But I can’t get the help if we don’t have the numbers to show,” Nelson said.

CONVINCING SUPERVISORS MAY BE CHALLENGING

However, one commissioner was skeptical accumulating more information through a work study or work log would make any difference to supervisors. Commissioner Fred Chabot recalled when the board of supervisors decided on a split-department employee to work in general assistance and veterans affairs.

“We recognized the need to give the county supervisors some data early on in my tenure the past 18 months,” Chabot said. “We started collecting the overtime hours that Alyssa worked and that Keith worked, and I don’t know if that information ever got to county supervisors.”

Nelson noted the number of employees and hours those employees can work in the veterans affairs office largely is determined by veteran populations. Which means Wilson is covered for 30 hours a week in Jasper County. The county has picked up the extra 10 hours of funding to make Wilson 40 hours.

Lisa Van Ryswyk suggested Wilson’s plea should be acknowledged for the sheer amount of money she is bringing in for veterans.

“That is still a lot of people and that is still a lot of money,” Van Ryswyk said. “And there is a lot of veterans backlogged trying to get the help. If you want to do a workload (study), you need to analyze everything to include the money she has brought into the county.”

Van Ryswyk later asked what it would take to get another genuine, caring individual in the veterans affairs office to help Wilson. Nelson said he cannot speak to that, but if the commission can provide the numbers he believed the department may have a case.

ORGANIZING MAY BE WAY TO CONVINCE SUPERVISORS TO ASSIST

Eventually some veterans and family members of veterans encouraged each other to form a group and meet with the board of supervisors at a future meeting in order to voice their support for Wilson. Commissioners and even Wilson recommended the group devote spokespersons in order to keep decorum.

In the event of a chaotic back-and-forth with elected officials, their testimonials may be overlooked. And it may be hard to temper some of that passion. For as much passion Wilson has for her veterans, they have just as much love and admiration for her simply because she has shown she will fight for them.

For Davis, who has not had positive experiences with other veterans affairs offices in the past, the Jasper County department has come through for him.

“She’s got a lot expected of her besides doing the filing of paperwork for veterans coming in here and utilizing her for help … Until today coming into this meeting I didn’t realize her responsibilities as one person,” Davis said. “I don’t know how she does it. I honestly don’t. She’s one person doing the job of three.”

Former veterans affairs commissioner Randy Wagner was keeping quiet throughout most of the meeting. When it came time for public comment toward the end when everyone had become restless, he addressed what he felt was the elephant in the room, suggesting there is a movement to oust Wilson.

“I’d like to know why this would even be suggested,” he said. “She’s doing a fantastic job. Every one of us veterans sitting at this table has had some dealings with her. We know what she does and we know that she’s good at her job. So why would anybody want to try and remove her? It don’t make sense.”

In fact, Wagner added, she needs more help.

“She needs more help. We need to get more money from our supervisors and help her out. That’s the only way we’re going to get things back on track.”

Wagner said he served 16 years on the Jasper County Veterans Affairs Commission, and he worked with two directors in that time.

They were good, he said, and they tried their best doing everything they could to help veterans.

“When I can see a non-veteran who’s doing this job for veterans, I personally don’t see any sense or any need to try to eliminate her,” Wagner said.

To hear that comment reinforced what Wilson has always believed about the veterans she has served as a civilian.

“If you do the job right, they’re going to protect you like one of their own.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.