BLOUNTVILLE — Tennessee Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder said Friday her department is widening its focus to deal with "everything veterans."
Besides running field offices and veterans cemeteries, Grinder told a veterans job fair she is addressing veterans unemployment, developing veteran business owner resources, expanding access to higher education, and dealing with suicide prevention.
"We are looking at some disturbing statistics," she said at the event held at the Sullivan County Courthouse. "The Tennessee veteran unemployment rate last year was 6.9 percent. We see as our veterans are coming home, that many of them are unemployed, ... 'unemployed veteran' are two words that should never go together. ... They should be able to have a quality career, not just a job."
Unemployment is the top concern for veterans, Tri-Cities Military Affairs Council President Ernie Rumsby agreed.
"There are still questions about the processing of compensation claims. ... The numbers have gone down but there are still concerns," Rumsby added.
A number of employers and the Tennessee Department of Labor "mobile career coach" staffed the job fair hosted by state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville.
State departments, Grinder noted, have also stepped up efforts to hire veterans.
"According to the Census Bureau, 35 percent of Tennessee veterans have some college or a degree," she said. "Twenty three percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. ... We want to be sure our veterans are competitive in the (job) market."
Grinder pointed to state lawmakers passing legislation this year to allow veterans to pay in-state tuition while attending a public college.
But she also highlighted dark times for veterans — with nearly 200 committing suicide and more than 2,400 in Tennessee prisons and county jails in 2012.
"The suicides are most tragic," Grinder said. "Most of these cases are veterans who served honorably and may not have received the help they needed. Some of them did not have the strong support some of our veterans have in a loving family and a supportive community."
Some veteran treatment courts have been established to help veterans get back into society, Grinder disclosed.
"We do know those veterans who are dealing with the wounds of war self-medicate when they come back and try to cope with those emotions that sometimes get them in trouble," she admitted. "A lot of times their military service is what helped land them in the corrections system."
Grinder is the first woman to serve as state veterans affairs commissioner. To accept the state post, she retired from the Tennessee Army National Guard as a colonel with more than 35 years of service.
The Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs operates 12 field offices, four Tennessee State Veterans Cemeteries, serves as liaison for three Tennessee State Veterans Homes, assists with active-duty casualties and hosts outreach events across the state to raise awareness and assist veterans as well as their families.
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