Tammany veterans decry shabby

Covington office Official needs better, they say

Tuesday April 06, 2004
By Meghan Gordon
St. Tammany bureau

Five sandbags rest beside the door to the Veterans Affairs service center in Covington.

The next time rain falls, assistance counselor John Clarke, the office's sole employee, will prop them against the door to prevent water from seeping in and soaking the already warped carpet.

While Clarke has a sense of humor about his crumbling, cramped digs -- he calls the part-bathroom, part-storage room his "executive lounge" -- some St. Tammany veterans think he deserves better.

Larry Rogers, 62, of Lacombe was floored when he went to the office recently to check his eligibility for benefits.

The Korean War veteran sat in one of the plastic chairs lined up a few feet from Clarke's desk as others ahead of him spilled details about their medical histories and bank accounts.

"The guy is the coolest guy," Rogers said of Clarke. "He made me feel great, until I looked around at the facility . . . I started saying, 'Gee, why is this office so crappy? Why aren't you in the new courthouse?"

A day after his trip to the office at 211 N. New Hampshire Ave., Rogers called a slew of local legislators and city officials in what he called his "one-man Rambo plan" to secure Clarke better digs.

One veteran he's roped into the fight is Jay Mutrie, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Big Branch.

When Mutrie stopped by the Covington veterans service center to check on the status of four medals he never received, he made a mental note of the office's shabbiness.

Clarke helped him apply for the missing medals, then told him how to file a medical malpractice claim for a botched hernia operation.

Mutrie said he would have liked more privacy.

"It's very cramped, and everyone sits in there together," Mutrie said. "He really needs a better facility to, No. 1, be more confidential with the veterans."

State law requires each parish to provide space for a Department of Veterans Affairs service office and to pay one quarter of the office's expenses.

Veterans receiving benefits in St. Tammany Parish have surged like the overall population, from 16,133 veterans in 2001 to 20,104 in September 2003, an increase of 25 percent, said Richard Blackwell, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Checks to St. Tammany veterans -- including government disability, pensions, death benefits and insurance -- totaled more than $20 million in 2002, Clarke said.

Rogers and other local veterans said city leaders should pay attention to those numbers and consider moving Clarke to a better spot.

They have suggested moving him to the old courthouse on Boston Street, which houses the Office of Emergency Preparedness and soon will house the 911 administrative offices and dispatch call center.

But the veterans shouldn't count on snagging any vacant space there, said Kim Salter, parish assistant chief administrative officer.

Salter said the building's only unallocated spot, the mezzanine level, would require major renovations, including an elevator and sprinkler system. The parish has no plans for renovating that space, she said.

Clarke said he and his counterpart in Slidell, Rolf Klingenberg, have asked parish leaders in the past to move them to different offices. Klingenberg suffers a similar lack of privacy amid the Department of Labor's airy office space at 316 Howze Beach Road.

Still, Clarke said he's stayed out of the veterans' campaign to find him a new spot, because his sole charge is to help them with their benefits.

"Don't get me wrong, I can work anywhere," he said.

. . . . . .

Meghan Gordon can be reached at
mgordon@timespicayune.com or (985) 898-4827.



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