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Around 75 veterans attend a Listening Session held by the staff from the Portland VA Office

JASON CHANEY - Local veteran Carl Robertson (left) meets with Outreach Coordinator Greg Ford and Lacey Carter, with the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs during the Listening Session last Tuesday.

The first Veteran Listening Session held in Prineville was by many accounts a success.

"Overall, it was a very positive experience," said Shannon Dearth, executive director of the Crook County Veterans Services Department. "Some of the reactions from veterans were that they had gotten their answers."

The feeling was mutual for the presenters of the event. Ruth Zhang, public affairs specialist for the VA Portland Health Care System, called the Prineville session "a fantastic event and very well attended."

"We had about 75 veterans and their family members in attendance," she said.

The VA Portland Health Care System and Portland Regional Benefits Office directors came to Prineville last Tuesday to provide local veterans information and care and to learn from them what issues rural veterans face.

Held from noon to 2 p.m. at the local Elks Lodge, the event featured brief introductions from the VA Portland Health Care System Director, the Portland Regional Benefits Office Director and the National Cemetery Administration Director. After addressing the crowd, the officials ventured out into the audience to talk to local veterans while other veteran service representatives offered tables with a variety of resources, including enrollment, My HealtheVet, women's health, suicide prevention, primary care, transition and care management, community care.

The listening session also included a moment where local Vietnam veterans were invited up front to receive lapel pins in honor of their service.

"It was a small thing that we could do to recognize them for everything they have done for our nation," Zhang said. "They weren't treated very well when they came back."

Dearth was told by VA officials after the event that they were pleased with the manner in which local veterans addressed their concerns and talked through issues. At other events, the VA is met with more frustration and shouting.

"There was a lot of positive feedback, a lot of positive answers," Dearth recalls. "It opened a lot of doors for more of a working relationship with the VA in Crook County."

Zhang could not identify any single concern among local veterans that stood out among the others. She noted that people asked about a wide range of topics from claims to women's health care to how to enroll in VA health care.

For Dearth, the listening session helped bridge the communication gap local veterans have often experienced in dealing with the VA.

"Having the individuals who go over the claims and benefits was huge," he remarked. "This way, it was face-to-face instead of a veteran calling on the phone and then being put on hold. That was huge."

And while this was the first time the VA had traveled to Prineville to host a listening session, the success of the event might ensure it won't be the last.

"It think it's important to hold these events to listen to our veterans and ensure we are delivering the best care possible," Zhang said.

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