ENID — As a veteran herself, retired Air National Guard two-star general Rita Aragon knows she is one of a large group of Oklahomans who have served in our nation’s military.
The trouble is, she doesn’t know how large that group actually is.
Presently, there are some 327,000 known veterans in the state of Oklahoma. That total, however, is based on the number of veterans receiving services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
But Aragon, the new state secretary of Veterans Affairs, believes the actual number of vets in the state is much higher.
“We believe that there is probably double that number,” she said. “I don’t get services from the VA, neither does my father or my uncle. What we want to do first is establish a guideline, how many veterans do we really have in the state of Oklahoma, and what are the needs of those veterans?”
Aragon was appointed as state Veterans Affairs secretary by Gov. Mary Fallin. She replaced Enid’s Norman Lamb, who had held the position since 1995.
The past 10 years of war has produced a large group of young veterans, Aragon said, and their needs are far different from those who fought in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
“We need to establish what the needs are, and then try to find how do we partner with private enterprise and other public entities,” Aragon said.
One such initiative, she said, is veterans’ courts. These are similar to the drug court concept in which non-violent drug offenders are diverted from jail into structured, supervised treatment programs.
Veterans’ courts, Aragon said, would divert veterans who get in trouble with the law away from the criminal justice system into one that would provide counseling, supervision and treatment that would be paid for by their veterans’ benefits, rather than by the state. Veterans’ court programs already are in place in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
“We’ve introduced legislation to enable it across the state to any entity that wants to do it,” she said. “It actually saves the taxpayers a lot of money and it’s the right thing to do for the young Americans who have put their life on hold for us.”
The No. 1 veterans’ issue, Aragon said, is suicide prevention. A quarter of all suicides in Oklahoma, she said, involve those who are or have been in the military, and these people represent only 1 percent of the state’s population.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is working with city and county mental health associations across the state to begin offering free counseling services for veterans.
Oklahoma Bar Association is offering Oklahoma Lawyers for America’s Heroes, through which all 44,000 members of the state bar have offered to do one pro bono case for a military or veteran family in the next year.
The Oklahoma Legislature also is considering increasing the amount of a veteran’s income that is exempt from state income tax, Aragon said.
“Oklahoma loves our veterans,” Aragon said. “We have a great mindset here.”
Communicating with state veterans, particularly in rural areas, is another area of concern, she added, particularly since the state has only 33 benefits counselors. Younger veterans are comfortable accessing benefit information on the Internet, older veterans much less so. Aragon’s agency is working with groups like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans to train people to help older veterans navigate the Internet in search of benefit information.
“Almost all our communities have libraries and those libraries have computers, if we just have someone who knows how to use them,” she said.
Aragon was in Enid Thursday wearing another of her many hats, as the governor’s representative on the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, which held its regular meeting at Vance Air Force Base.
The focus of the commission, Aragon said, is not simply protecting state military facilities from future Base Realignment and Closure rounds, but making them more attractive to possible expansion.
“How do we go and bring in missions?” Aragon said. “This is an extremely competitive environment right now.”
Aragon lauded the relationship between Vance and the city, state and Oklahoma’s congressional delegation.
“Vance does a great job of communicating with Washington and Pentagon sources,” Aragon said. “Mike Cooper (city of Enid military liaison and chairman of the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission) is known all over the hill and all over the Pentagon as a guy who’s really aggressive about the support for Vance Air Force Base, Enid and Oklahoma in general.”
Vance’s joint mission is an asset, Aragon said. Vance is the only Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training base, teaching not only airmen, but also naval personnel and Marines to fly. Vance also is home to one of seven state Armed Forces Reserve Centers, housing Army Reserve and Oklahoma National Guard troops.
“You now pull the dollars from the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy, as well as the Air Force,” she said. “You want to diversify. That’s the key to staying relevant in this next century of the military. We will be doing more with less in the military.”
In seeking increased efficiency, Aragon said, the services won’t necessarily wait for a Congress-mandated BRAC round. An example is the Air Force’s recent announcement it was planning to close the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals squadron at Vance. That prompted Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and Rep. Frank Lucas, to write a letter to the secretary of the Air Force and Air Force chief of staff asking for evidence such a move would actually save money.
“What makes the most sense in the short-term might not make the most sense in the long-term,” she said. “Our job is to stay aware so we can explain to them the long-term effects of what they are about to do.”