Here in Lexington, plenty of attention gets paid to those revolutionary men who long ago took up arms to establish America as the land of the free and home of the brave. Over the past several months, however, the "Birthplace of American Liberty" has come under fire for its handling of the men and women who fought to keep her that way.
The night of Nov. 14, Christian Kulikoski, the state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, stood in the balcony of Cary Hall, looking down at special Town Meeting as his left arm extended toward a handful of local veterans.
Kulikoski, an Army veteran, was in Lexington imploring town officials hire a full-time Veterans Services Officer, which would bring the town into compliance with a Massachusetts law state officials say Lexington has skirted for several years. Kulikoski made the same impassioned plea to the Board of Selectmen a few hours earlier.
About a month later, Joe Alfonse, the town’s most recent VSO, announced he was stepping down from the part-time position he had accepted in August 2011. Alfonse’s resignation was effective Dec. 30 and, shortly thereafter, the town announced it was recruiting for a full-time Veterans’ Services Officer.
Applications closed yesterday in Lexington’s search to hire a new VSO, according to Town Manager Carl Valente, who told Patch the town has agreed to make the position full-time after pressure from the state.
Kulikoski and the VFW are encouraged that Lexington took the step of recruiting for a full-time VSO, but intend to keep an eye on the process, the state officer said Monday.
“The Veterans of Foreign Wars is pleased that the town has decided to comply with the law and hire a full-time Veterans Services Officer for their community who desperately needs it,” Kulikoski said. “But, the reality is that we’ll be watching and we’ll be influencing things.”
Under MGL Chap. 115, any Massachusetts municipality with a population of 12,000 or higher must employ a full-time Veterans Services Officer. In the past, the town has opted instead to employ a part-time VSO who worked out of the Human Services Department, feeling that this arrangement would better serve the town’s estimated 1,200 veterans.
Kulikoski said he's fielded complaints from local veterans and their families about having a hard time tracking down Alfonse and his predecessor, Bob Martin. Before Alfonse, who was also working as a high school teacher, accepted the position, the town had a hard time finding candidates for part-time VSO position, which offered to pay $16,000 annually.
“It’s a real concern that whoever the new veterans service officer will be won’t be a true business partner of the town in going forward to serve the business community,” said Kulikoski. “The man or woman has to be empowered to do the job, want to do the job and have the support of the community.”
To that end, Kulikoski said a state commander has requested the town utilize a veterans advisory board during the interviewing and vetting process. The suggested board would consist of three members of the local VFW post and representatives from any other Lexington veterans organizations.
In an email to Patch, Valente said the town is “planning on having a veteran(s) involved in the selection process.” Officials would like to have a full-time VSO in place by March 1, but will be flexible according to the candidate’s needs, he said.
According to Valente, part of the town’s reticence in following the state statue was that officials feel separating the VSO position from the Human Services Department would be a detriment. Case referrals are one area he cited specifically.
But Kulikoski points back to the state, saying Massachusetts is supportive of veterans in terms of its programs and it’s important towns like Lexington invest in a full-time VSO to connect veterans with the support and programs available to them.
“One of the biggest concerns that we have going forward is that the town’s Veterans Services Officer is available and responsive to veterans,” Kulikoski said. “If the officer is not available to the people in Lexington to file benefits in the way that they should, it’s not a problem that’s going to go away. It’s going to affect the other communities and the veterans in other communities."