While Sen. Gary Peters has been working to expand veterans’ access to services, his opponent John James denied veterans emergency support while overseeing the Michigan Veterans’ Trust Fund.
CARO, Mich.—Dominic Gravina served two tours as a paratrooper in the Marine Corps, serving both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Four years after his discharge in 2004, Gravina was in a car accident where he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Kathleen Crown, his mother, told the Tuscola County Advertiser, the local Caro paper, that the injury was so severe that he had the top of his skull temporarily removed as part of his treatment, and the impacts on his life have been severe. He remained non-verbal in the decade since his injury. Crown, she explained, speaks on his behalf.
Gravina faced eviction in 2017 for the needed housing accommodations he had, from fencing to lighting. The cost of trying to fight that in court was extreme, particularly for a veteran with high medical needs and no ability to communicate verbally.
“I’m living every day holding my breath at this point,” Crown told the Advertiser. “I don’t have the money to be moving someplace else. I was told by the attorney that anything I request, I will be denied because [the landlords] are angry at me.”
Both Crown and Gravina live in the same community and she is his primary caregiver. His eviction is her eviction.
The Michigan Veterans Trust Fund (MVTF) exists for people like him, but under Republican Senate candidate John James’ oversight, the rate at which claims were rejected dramatically increased. The record of John James’ opponent, Sen. Gary Peters, on veterans’ issues stands in stark contrast.
Who Should Be Helping
The Michigan Veterans Trust Fund is designed to provide short-term, emergency financial assistance for veterans in immediate need. Veterans in Michigan with honorable discharges can submit requests to the MVTF for everything from housing and legal fees, to medical bills.
John James oversaw the board allocating that money for four years—from March 2014 to March 2017—and during that time the rate of rejected claims surged, according to minutes from the panel’s meetings. Prior to James’ tenure as chair of the MVTF, only about half of the claims made it through approval. With James in charge, that number fell to nearly one-quarter of approved claims.
A review of the minutes from the committee provided to The ‘Gander shows thousands of dollars in medical bills, housing assistance, and help with home-heating were rejected as James oversaw the fund. Nearly $1,000 in emergency car repairs, almost $5,000 in roof repairs, and multiple furnace replacements were denied by James’ committee.
One case in Grand Traverse County for bill pay assistance was rejected because the short-term assistance the MVTF offers wouldn’t have been enough on its own to address the problems the veteran faced. The board decided to reject the claim overall for this reason, instead of providing even limited support, according to the minutes from the committee.
Another claim rejected the emergency dental work needed by another Grand Traverse vet because dental work didn’t threaten the health or economic security of the applicant, the board argued.
The minutes also show James regularly missing meetings, particularly just before becoming the chairperson of the MVTF board.
Information about the applicants is kept confidential by MVTF, but the minutes show numerous requests from veterans for rental assistance were denied by James’ committee. Neither the MVTF board nor John James specifically responded to requests for comment.
A Tale of Two Veterans
Both James and his opponent, Sen. Gary Peters, are military veterans who have been involved in the support structure for former service members. But where James denied support to hundreds of Michigan veterans, Peters is looking to improve their situations.
Specifically, he wants people like Gravina to know support is out there. In February, Peters introduced legislation to create a hotline that would help veterans seeking assistance connect with programs like the MVTF, or help those rejected by the MVTF find other programs to provide assistance.
He has other policies for former soldiers as well. His legislative actions on behalf of veterans include an effort to get career training for returning soldiers.
“The men and women who have served in the military, who have served with honor, should have the opportunity open to run the full range of apprenticeships,” Peters said to The ‘Gander. “The legislation I passed allows folks to use their GI Bill to go into apprenticeship programs.”
Peters said this legislation is one he is proudest of. He explained that of Michigan’s 11,000 apprenticeship programs, fewer than 100 were eligible for use under the GI Bill. The bill Peters got signed into law addressed that.
Peters also worked with veterans to get their mental health conditions recognized. He mentioned a constituent who was dishonorably discharged for behavior associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Peters successfully got that discharge revised into honorable, making that person eligible to seek hardship assistance from the MVTF if it becomes needed.
Peters said his legislation on that effort has changed the discharge status of 1,500 people since its adoption.