St. Mary vets awarded La. Medals

Gov. Bobby Jindal courted St. Mary Parish area veterans Monday at a ceremony highlighted by heartfelt pride.

Missing in action, however, were comments about the $350,000-plus budget cuts he ordered from the state’s Veterans Affairs budget last Friday. The budget decreases were among the $106.7 million reduction he ordered to compensate for deficits in the state’s general fund.

According to Robin T. Keller, spokesperson for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the cuts will not impact how the state cares for its veterans because the office intends to “draw down” money from the federal government, which, in large part, subsidizes the office.

“This cut was offset by federal dollars,” she said. “We’re trying to go aggressively after federal dollars to make sure we’re maximizing everything we’re supposed to get and not leave anything on the table.”

Keller’s comments did not allay state Rep. Sam Jones’ (D-Franklin) concerns.

“I’m speculative on this,” he said. “It would take a joint budget committee to review this and I just don’t know if that has happened yet.

“Either way, if the committee has met, you’re still cutting services no matter how you look at it,” he added.

Jones said even if the state void is met with federal funds, “you still have a loss of $350,495 in money that could have been used for another veterans program.”

“No matter how you look at this budget, you should never cut veterans’ services,” he said.

Jones said he will be among legislators looking to overturn the cuts in the next legislative session.

A sign on display at the Patterson Civic Center where the event was held touted the state’s payout to veterans during the last fiscal year. According to the display, Louisiana veterans received $732 million in compensation and pensions. In all 312,078 veterans and their families received money.

“This represents an increase of almost $100 million over the last fiscal year,” the sign read.

But according to Jones, the majority of the monies came from the federal government. The state only paid about $3 million to run the Veterans Affairs office, he said.

“This is a very small match,” Jones said. “We should be able to find the kind of money we need instead of chopping it out of the budget.”

Monday’s event was in keeping with the Louisiana Veterans Honor Medal, which was created by Act 695 of the 2008 Louisiana Legislature. The act is designed to honor all state veterans.

On one side of the medal awarded by Jindal are the words, “United States Armed Forces.” The flip side reads, “Louisiana appreciates your service to our country.” In all, 324 St. Mary veterans were honored for distinguished service.

“It feels wonderful [to be honored] because I watched a lot of guys come back and they were never honored,” said the Rev. Sheron Stuard, a Franklin pastor and psychiatrist, who served as a flight medic during the Vietnam War. “Being a female veteran who trained with men, we experienced a lot. This feels very, very good.”

Stuard has a son serving in Iraq and a daughter in the U.S. Marines. She learned of the cuts to the state VA budget at Monday’s ceremony.

“That’s disturbing,” she said of the news. “I am also a disabled veteran and have had difficulty with my lungs throughout the years. As I said, this could be challenging.”

Morgan City resident Jimmy Manuel, 91, served in World War II. He had a mixed reaction to Jindal’s cuts. “Of course I have a soft spot in my heart for veterans, but if it’s a choice of taking money and spending it on education, frankly, I really just don’t know.”

Budget woes aside, Raymond “Mona” Beadle Sr., a World War II veteran and Morgan City resident, said Monday’s ceremony was a reminder of the role servicemen and women play.

“Just when you think we’re forgotten, we find out how much people are really appreciative of us and our service,” Beadle said. “That’s why I volunteered.”

Jimmy Manuel, 91, of Morgan City, served in an Army Air-Force Service Group during World War II. He was stationed in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and was at Iwo Jima when the war ended. HOWARD J. CASTAY JR.