Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Vice President Joe Biden didn’t go so far as to offer the shirt off his back during a private visit Tuesday with 32 veterans in downtown Las Vegas, but he came close.
After speaking to a job skills class at the U.S. VETS career center for 20 minutes, Biden had accompanying members of the media escorted out of the building so he could speak candidly with the veterans and take questions.
After a couple of questions, one veteran said he liked the vice president’s tie, which was blue and spotted with white sailboats. Would it be appropriate, the veteran said, to ask for it?
Other veterans in the room at the time told the Sun on Wednesday that Biden shared a story about his father’s generous nature, then took off his tie and handed it to the inquiring veteran.
It was a nice gesture, but the veterans had plenty of concerns besides looking sharp for their next job interview. Biden also took questions on what the government can do to reduce red tape in accessing benefits and improving job placement for veterans.
“You know some people will say it was just a campaign stop, a political event,” said Neil DeCaprio, who was at the Tuesday event. “There were 32 guys here, that’s not too many votes. I think he wholeheartedly wanted to answer questions the best way he could. The Obama administration has made headway with improving services for veterans, and I think their hearts and minds are in the right place. With the economic crunch, there is only so much they can do.”
DeCaprio, a 64-year-old Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after he saw an unarmed Vietnamese child shot to death. He was turned down 25 years ago when he asked for benefits related to his trauma, and he posed the first question to Biden: Why do so many veterans have to hire attorneys to win access to benefits?
DeCaprio said Biden pulled up a chair and sat down right in front of him to directly answer the question.
“He said it himself. A lot of the veterans from Vietnam fell through the cracks, the country turned its back on us,” said DeCaprio, who said some people spat on him when he first came back to the United States after the war. “I had to prove that a specific incident occurred for them to acknowledge that I had PTSD. (Biden) said today it is much easier to receive benefits related to PTSD. He did say that they need more people in the Veterans Administration to work on cases.”
Andrew Rocco, 65, also served in Vietnam and said he suffered from psychological and physical health problems from injuries, trauma and exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant the military used to clear trees and brush from the Vietnam countryside. Agent Orange led to birth defects in the Vietnamese population, and nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders to members of the armed forces.
Rocco said he has attempted suicide twice and has fought for years to get the benefits to which he feels entitled. U.S. VETS has provided Rocco with housing, food and counseling.
“My message to the government for us, and those coming back now, is: Be responsible for the people, for those coming back and those left behind,” said Rocco, who still wears his original dog tags around his neck.
DeCaprio and Rocco are supporters of President Barack Obama and liberals, but even some conservatives in the room appreciated the vice president’s visit.
“I won’t vote for (Obama and Biden), I’ll vote for (Mitt) Romney. I think Obama has done right by veterans, but I’m against his economic policies, taxing people to death, spreading the wealth,” said Marine veteran Damon D’Amico, 51. “What I really appreciated, though, was that the vice president told us, ‘Don’t be scared to ask for help. You deserve it.’ The whole thing made me feel good.”
D’Amico added that he supported the Obama administration’s efforts on behalf of veterans, such as allowing those returning from active duty to obtain professional licenses — for electrical engineering for example — more easily.
“I hope if Romney wins, he continues some of the same policies when it comes to veterans,” D’Amico said.
Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, stayed for more than an hour after the media left, talking with the veterans and taking pictures with each of them.
The veterans interviewed Wednesday all seemed genuinely appreciative of the vice president’s visit, and said it did not come off as a campaign stop.
“He is one of the friendliest and warmest people I’ve met, and I don’t think it was an act,” Marine Corps veteran Tyrone Avery said. “I believe they are trying hard to improve things for veterans, and it’s not just lip service.”
U.S. VETS houses up to 260 veterans at a time in its two Las Vegas facilities, director Shalimar Cabrera said.
“I felt, and I think most of the veterans agreed, that the vice president did really understand the challenges they face,” Cabrera said. “We have a comprehensive approach, because there can be a lot of things that prevent someone from easily transitioning back into civilian life. It can still take too long for veterans to start receiving their benefits, and we still have issues with employers negatively stigmatizing veterans.”
Many of the veterans said organizations such as U.S. VETS, which provides comprehensive services for transitioning from active duty to civilian life including housing, career training and counseling, are exactly the type of programs the government should be funding.
“U.S. VETS does astounding work for us,” DeCaprio said. “It’s unsurpassed.”