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County board hears praise for VSO, adds staff member

The tide of discontent may be turning for Hubbard County's beleaguered Veterans Service Office.

A Park Rapids veteran appeared before the county board first thing Wednesday to praise Veterans Service Office Dave W. Konshok's knowledge and assistance with his claims. Last month a legion of vets came to complain about poor service.

"He resolved some conflicts very, very quickly," Richard Crow told the board. "Most people who complain about VSOs don't realize the monoliths they're dealing with in the military. It's easy to find naysayers that aren't willing to do their part. They want someone else to do it for them."

Crow said vets must accept some responsibility to conduct their own research and help the agency in charge of helping them.

When Konshok appeared before the board later Wednesday morning, he joked when told of the compliment.

"Well, at least there's one out there," he said.

Konshok has come under fire for letting veterans' cases build up. He spends half his time as the county's Emergency Management Director. He said he was stretched too thin between the two jobs.

There was good news on that front, too. The county Wednesday afternoon tapped chief deputy recorder Darryl Hensel to begin working in the VSO Monday, assisting Konshok with processing claims. Hensel will be the interim VSO when Konshok is deployed to Afghanistan next summer for six months.

Hensel will be able to do both jobs with a computer hooked into the recorder's office. The VSO is a block away in the Hubbard County fairgrounds building.

Commissioners said they do not want to see a tug of war between the two offices for Hensel's time.

"The public feels a county is a county employee," board chair Lyle Robinson said. "They aren't the property of a certain department.

"It needs to be understood that your boss is the board," he told Hensel, who nodded in agreement.

"If it gets to be a problem we need to know about it," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

Konshok released a quarterly status report indicating the office has seen 340 vets during July, August and September. Some of those are telephone contacts; 75 percent are in-person visits.

Konshok said he is beginning to see an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, many suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"These are pretty complicated cases," he told the board.

He also predicted he will be seeing "a seasonal spike" in requests for housing, fuel assistance and food stamps as winter sets in and the unemployment rates continue to rise.

Konshok's status report indicates the peacetime period between 1975 and 1990, between the Vietnam War and first Gulf War conflict, hasn't produced vets in much need of services.

"Maybe a lot of them think they don't have anything coming," Johannsen suggested.

There must be a correlation between "needs and combat," commissioner Greg Larson said.

"Combat is damaging," Konshok agreed.

He said on average, Hubbard County vets are receiving between $2,800 and $3,600 in benefits. That compares to some surrounding counties in which vets average $5,000 in benefits.

As a unit of measurement, Konshok said he's reluctant to attach significance to those numbers, but admitted that is how veterans' assistance agencies measure progress, or success.

"It is economic development," Robinson said. "You're bringing federal dollars to the community. Maybe we didn't have the staff to go for extra programs" in the past.

Other commissioners said one veteran with extensive needs could change that financial picture.

"I have a hard time believing the sicker people went to Wadena County," Robinson said.

Konshok said he has applied for a Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs grant to possibly fund his position, or Hensel's. He will not be sure it will be awarded until December, he said. He applied for $32,000 for two years; he said it's possible the county could be awarded half that.

The county has asked Konshok to spend more time on veterans' claims, to reduce the backlog that has built up during Konshok's frequent absences due to reserve duty and training. He divides his time 50/50 between the two jobs.

He said he has some concerns about the Emergency Management grant he is operating under now, which funds a portion of his salary. He said the county accepted the grant based on a 50/50 division of labor. The county has asked him to devote a majority of his time to veterans issues.

But when questioned about the provisions of that grant, Konshok said it was "over the course of the year," dividing his time between the two posts.

He also expressed some concerns about training Hensel, setting down his thick VSO manual on the board table to illustrate the complexities of the position.

"The actual training time is really on-the-job training," he said, to address the variety of claims vets face, he said.

"The VA (Veterans Affairs Department) is so complex," Crow told the board. "One arm doesn't know what the other is doing."

Crow said Konshok, with his vast military experience, was able to easily maneuver through the morass of bureaucracy needed to process Crow's claims.

But it's that military experience that also worries the board.

"What's the continued likelihood you'll have another six- to nine-month deployment?" county coordinator Jack Paul asked Konshok.

Typically, for Konshok's Air Force reserve unit, "we do one cycle on, with five off," Konshok replied.

That means he would not face another deployment for at least 2+ years after his return.