When Bexar County unveiled its Military Transition Center earlier this month, many hailed it as a sign of progress in Military City, USA.
But one local veteran feels the County has pulled the rug out from underneath him.
U.S. Army veteran Steven Price just had hip replacement surgery for the second time. Price has been fighting for his service disability status to be upgraded from 70 percent to 100 percent for decades, starting in 1988 when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) diagnosed his hip and low back issues as congenital bone disease. His appeal of that decision is currently under review, and his deadline to submit new evidence to support his claim is Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. The difference between winning and losing his appeal is about $500,000 in retroactive pay, he said.
But his case manager, Bexar County Veterans Service Officer Queta Rodriguez, was fired Nov. 9 and her position removed in a decision she calls political retaliation for running against Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) earlier this year. Bexar County Commissioners voted 3-1, with Elizondo abstaining, to approve the selection of a new veterans service office director and cut Rodriguez’s position.
“I don’t want anybody else touching my file,” Price said. “If they don’t bring Queta back, I’ve got a serious problem.”
The Commissioners’ decision has left the veterans service office without a full-time accredited claims officer – and likely for a while.
Rodriguez’s position was replaced with a new director of military services/veterans service officer role to be assumed by Karen Rolirad, who departs the City of San Antonio’s Office of Military & Veteran Affairs for her new job on Dec. 3. Rolirad is not accredited to handle disability claims and would have to work with the VA to receive accreditation, a process that typically takes anywhere from several months to a year, according to the VA.
Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who requested the item to dissolve Rodriguez’s position on the Nov. 9 Commissioners Court agenda, said Price’s case is being used to further Rodriguez’s political ambitions.
“Price is being used as a political tool,” Wolff said. “The man is a veteran, and we will bend over backwards to make sure we help him in any way possible to get anything he’s entitled to. … It’s unfortunate he’s getting stuck in the middle of this.”
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), who cast the lone vote against dissolving Rodriguez’s position, could not be reached for comment prior to publication of this article.
The Texas Veterans Commission will take on Rodriguez’s pending caseload as the office transitions to Rolirad’s leadership, Wolff said, and a part-time employee with the County has been assigned Price’s case.
Price said the veterans commission handled his case in 2007 and “screwed up my file,” delaying his case for several years.
On Price’s behalf, the County has asked the VA for a 30-to-60-day extension of his disability claim so he can submit additional evidence for the record with the guidance of a claims officer, Wolff wrote in a Wednesday email.
Price said he hopes the County will hire Rodriguez back temporarily to close out his appeal and any other pending cases.
Rodriguez said she was offended by Wolff’s assertion she is trying to score political points.
“Mr. Price is a veteran who is going through a difficult time,” she said. “I would never use a veteran to do anything politically motivated.”
Price’s case file is so voluminous and complicated that the current claims officers at the Bexar County veterans service office are not equipped to take it on, Rodriguez said, and cutting the person most familiar with his case at the 11th hour is detrimental.
“When you have a case like this, you want the continuity,” she said. “[The Texas Veterans Commission is] carrying [its] own caseload. … There’s no way they can handle the volume created by the deletion of my position.
“No matter how you look at it, the decision the [Commissioners] Court made has caused an undue burden on staff, the Texas Veterans Commission, and more importantly it has left a lot of veterans hanging,” Rodriguez added. She estimated her caseload at the County constitutes at least 200 veterans.
Several Bexar County veterans contacted the Rivard Report to express their concern over the lapse in advocacy Price faces.
“Switching horses this close to the end is a really bad idea,” said John Kane, a Navy veteran discharged in 1990 who experienced his own fight for service disability benefits. “We’re talking about a huge amount of material to back up these claims. To suddenly switch with so little notice, there’s no question here that this has been politically motivated.”
Rodriguez said she was one of three finalists for the new director position but dropped out after a more-than-yearlong delay in the hiring process. Wolff points to her withdrawal from that process as proof she is waging a political battle against the Commissioners Court. But Rodriguez said she believes her dismissal and Rolirad’s hiring was dragged out until after the midterm election so Elizondo could be spared any political consequences ahead of his Nov. 6 re-election to the court.
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Rodriguez lost her bid in May for the Democratic nomination, and Elizondo went on to win re-election to his seat earlier this month. Elizondo appointed Rodriguez to her position in the veterans services office five years ago.
“It was an unpleasant surprise” that Rodriguez ran against him, Elizondo said. “But people do whatever they want to do. That’s okay with me. I went through the election process, and I prevailed. I have said nothing since then or even during that time about terminating her or anything like that. And she pulled herself out of the running.”
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Elizondo said the new Military Transition Center will help push the County in a new, more innovative direction. Located just outside Fort Sam Houston, the facility will focus on providing employment opportunities to active-duty service members who are six months away from leaving the military.
Price, however, said he feels the County has left him and his fellow veterans behind.