Mayor Eric Johnson on Veterans Day last year announced the formation of the City of Dallas Veteran Affairs Commission, and last February, The Dallas City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to establish the VA Commission to take effect immediately.
“We owe our veterans an incredible debt of gratitude for fighting on our behalf,” Johnson said at the time, “and we must now fight for Dallas to become the best city for veterans in the United States.”
The mayor and council appointed a chair last summer and meetings have been happening once a month, but six of 15 seats on the commission remain vacant. Chairman Allen Vaught, a combat veteran of the Iraq war and East Dallas resident, has sweeping experience both in politics and veterans affairs. He is optimistic about the commission and what it can do for the City’s 43,000-plus vets, but, yes, he says, it’s important to fill those seats.
The commission is supposed to include 15 members, one appointed by each Dallas City Council representative.
According to the city secretary’s City of Dallas Board and Commission Members list, council districts 1, 4, 5, 8, 10 and 13 are vacant.
Vaught, a former state representative and U.S. Army captain was appointed commission chair last June. He agrees that making progress — acting effectively as an advisory body to the city manager and the city council, as is the commission’s purpose — could be difficult sans full membership.
The VA commission holds a monthly meeting on the second Thursday of every month except this month, when they will meet next week. Once a year, in February, minimum, the commission presents a full report to the Dallas City Council.
Next week, the regional head of the VA, or someone in his office, is coming to talk to the commission about about health care, one of the three big issues, Vaught says, adding that health care — including mental health — jobs and housing are the biggest.
“But it’s going to be challenging to have a commission recommendation when a lot of them haven’t even heard the testimony,” he says.
Several council members are new as of last summer’s elections, which could be part of the reason those seats are not filled, he says. He adds that the weekly meetings are recorded so new appointees could catch up before February’s report to the city council, feasibly. In addition, the commission is fairly new, and thus, would likely plan a second report in addition to the one slated for February.
“Even if we’d had full membership from day one, we still would only have had just a few meetings,” he reasons.
According to the city ordinance, nominations for members were to begin in August 2021 “and each subsequent odd-numbered year, and members appointed shall serve a two-year term beginning on October 1.”
The ordinance says the membership must be “balanced” and reflect “an outstanding interest in or knowledge of veterans’ affairs, including having knowledge about veterans’ concerns, or being affiliated with a service provider to veterans.” And at least four members must be currently serving or have previously served in the United States military.
Once the commission fills those seats the order of business is to identify issues veterans in our city are experiencing and look for — or create new — resources. Communicating existing resources to people in need and agencies that serve them will be paramount.
“There are a lot of resources out there but there’s just a big disconnect and people knowing what those are. And to the extent there are no resources for certain things and the city can help, we will make recommendations,” he says.
When Vaught was in the Texas legislature, he vice chaired the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee and carried a bill called the Veterans Court Program. It created a mental health program for veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury who run afoul of the law, he explains.
Often there are assets in existence like this that we need to raise awareness around, he says. “Dallas has a great veterans court program where veterans can get mental health care instead of a jail stay, for example, but it’s then about letting police, fire department know it exists.”
He points to other huge accomplishments for veterans in Dallas, such as Rep. Collin Allred’s success at getting a second VA hospital open in in Garland. Driving to the South Dallas location in traffic can be traumatic, for anyone, but especially combat veterans, Vaught points out. (My own dad was in a car wreck while driving to the VA hospital on Lancaster; he said the same thing).
So the commission — one of the first of its kind at a city government level — at its best will be streamlining services, collaborating with other organizations and filling the cracks in the system. Dallas County does have a veterans affairs commission in place. TexVet.org also offers a comprehensive list of health, (including substance abuse and mental health), housing and employment resources for veterans.
The VA commission’s meetings are held on Zoom for now and may resume at City Hall next year. Vaught encourages the public to either watch or attend meetings and offer input. Those meetings will stream on Dallascityhall.com.
“That’s how we learn,” he says.