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State veterans agency faces repeated crises

Leaping from crisis to crisis, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has been dealing with tornadoes, the threatened evacuation of its Lawton disabled veterans home and staff turmoil at its Claremore home for disabled veterans.
by Randy Ellis Modified: June 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm •  Published: June 30, 2013

From tornadoes to Tuesday's death of a board member Jerry Riley, the Oklahoma War Veterans Commission has faced one crisis after another over the past six weeks.

Other major crises have included:

A damaged switch that threatened to force the evacuation of 200 residents from the commission's Lawton institution for disabled war veterans.

Staff turmoil at the Claremore Veterans Center.

Controversy over a law scheduled to go into effect Nov. 1 that will ban smoking by residents in the state's seven institutions for disabled war veterans.

Hundreds of war veterans and their families were in the paths of May tornadoes that tore through Moore, south Oklahoma City, El Reno, Carney and other Oklahoma communities.

Employees of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs paired with veterans' service organizations to quickly begin distributing state emergency relief checks to war veterans and surviving spouses whose property sustained damage.

State checks totaling nearly $425,000 were handed out within weeks, with most qualifying individuals receiving the maximum $1,000, officials said. Veterans' service organizations passed out additional checks from donated funds to veterans who did not qualify for the state emergency funds.

Relief workers faced their own hazards.

Danny Oliver, state adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, said he and others were in his organization's trailer in the Moore Wal-Mart parking lot, working to assist victims of the May 19 and 20 tornadoes, when another tornado came through May 31 and briefly lifted the trailer off the ground.

Oliver said they had been trying to watch the weather, but “I think we decided right then we didn't need to watch the weather anymore.”

They headed for a tornado shelter. In addition to handing out checks, the veterans' organizations did things like guard veterans' damaged homes while they went to file claims and provide transportation, he said.

Board member Riley, 79, of Bristow, was an active participant in the War Veterans Commission's June 21 meeting, but passed away four days later.

During the June 21 meeting, commissioners were briefed on a multitude of challenges facing the state agency they govern.

Terry Wilkerson, administrator of the Lawton Veterans Center, said a storm that passed through Lawton on June 16 damaged a switch that is supposed to automatically transfer power back and forth between the center's main power source and a backup generator.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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