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Female veteran takes state to task

New director denies neglecting expo, staff vacancy

– More than 33,000 female veterans live in Indiana, and one of them is waging a crusade to keep alive a conference and state coordinator position dedicated to veterans who are women.

While Gov. Mike Pence has prioritized veterans’ issues, Lisa Wilken believes the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs has backtracked on helping women since his administration began.

The position of state coordinator for female veterans has been empty for months and a one-day annual conference for women veterans has been canceled, though a smaller version is possible as part of a separate, pre-existing health expo in October.

“A conference is important to meet veterans and veteran advocates, learn about services, do a benefits review,” Wilken said. “It allows us to have fellowship with each other and celebrate our service. You don’t want to just see each other at funerals.”

She has written countless letters to legislators and veterans groups. She has testified at public meetings. She has met with her local lawmakers and corresponded with the House speaker’s chief of staff.

Wilken has even stopped by the governor and lieutenant governor’s office on multiple occasions this summer in hopes that a staff member might take her concerns higher up the chain.

“I’m mad that I got jerked around,” said Wilken, a mother and disabled Air Force veteran.

Her ire is largely directed at James Brown, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, who was appointed by Pence in February. He has served in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“No one is against what she is advocating,” he said. “But the way she handles it leaves something to be desired. Sometimes I don’t want to take her calls because I don’t want to get chewed.”

But Brown said he does support women veterans.

“They have done well, and the military could not operate, fight and win without them,” Brown said, adding that he stepped in to halt unsavory behavior in the field against women.

Wilken’s concern centers on a female veterans advocacy program started in 2006 under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels. The coordinator headed the program, which was highlighted by an annual conference addressing the unique problems faced by women while serving their country and after their discharge back into civilian life.

Navy veteran Kristin Bertrand was tapped initially as the coordinator. She said the percentage of female veterans using benefits is low, and many of them experienced some form of sexual trauma during their service.

“A lot of women suffer in silence,” she said.

About 300 women attended the first conference held in Indianapolis in 2007. The daylong seminar included speakers on combat experiences, benefits, women’s health providers and more.

The speaker was Tammy Duckworth, then the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, now a congresswoman, who lost parts of both legs in Iraq in 2004.

The conference continued in 2008 and 2009, and Bertrand even won an award for her work.

A new coordinator was appointed in 2010, but too late to put together a conference that year. The conference was back on, though, in 2011 and 2012.

Brown came to the office in February, and the person handling the women’s coordinator duties changed positions shortly after. Since then, the post has been unfilled. As a result, the tentatively scheduled May conference was canceled.

Wilken met with Brown in early May to discuss the conference, which she spoke at the previous year as a victim of military sexual trauma. She said he wanted to enhance the event to include more speakers, have an overnight hotel stay and market it outside Indianapolis.

She got the ball rolling on planning – visiting hotels in and outside Indianapolis, receiving bids, finding speakers. She tried several times to get information on the budget for the conference, which comes out of an account funded by donations, not taxpayer dollars.

Wilken was hoping for a fall date. At a June meeting, she was told there was no money for the conference in the account – that it had reverted back to the general fund.

In July, she got a call from Brown saying instead of the conference, they would have a break-out room at the Indianapolis VA Medical Center’s health expo in October.

“You don’t have a conference at a hospital,” Wilken vented. “I was so mad, I didn’t want to speak with him.”

Convinced the change was about money, she contacted each legislative caucus and the State Budget Agency until she determined that the dedicated account still existed and had almost $7,000 in it. A Democratic lawmaker even offered a free location to host the event.

Brown said women can get the care they need at the hospital, which is trying to re-engage female veterans specifically.

“I was new and couldn’t find the account. I am not against a conference, but I didn’t know how to pull it off this year,” he said. “I have to figure out how we get more donations to cover an expanded hotel conference.”

Later, he said: “We’re not the enemy. We may be incompetent but not mean. That’s what we’ve been accused of.”

Brown also said his office of five to eight staff members has about 19 core issues to follow, and women’s concerns are one of them.

He said he intends to appoint a transitional women’s coordinator, conduct the expo in October and try to plan a spring conference.

Wilken hasn’t been satisfied, bringing it to the attention of the Veterans’ Affairs Commission, which Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, served on.

Banks said he knew little about the issue but that it was clear there is a personality clash involved.

“I was an independent observer,” he said. “She wants a multiday conference about miscellaneous veterans’ issues impacting women. That sounds important to me. She was offered the opportunity to host that. She didn’t like the venue, the timing, the funding.

“I believe the issues she wants to address are important issues, but the format is debatable.”

Bertrand is just hoping all her hard work to start the program doesn’t go to waste.

“I’m worried that it will just fade away,” she said. “It just sounds like other states are being aggressive in moving forward and Indiana is just taking steps backward.”