Gathering annually in Wildwood has been a tradition of the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars for half a century. Having served their nation in the face of the most dire threats, veterans weren’t going to cancel their convention this year.

“We stood firm,” said Bill Thomson, convention director for the Department of New Jersey VFW. “We were going to have a convention of some sort, in some way, somewhere.”

For their efforts, state veterans were rewarded with an update from U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie on programs and projects being implemented and considered and how the Veterans Administration is handling the COVID-19 threat.

Adjustments to deter the spread of the virus reduced attendance to about 100, a small fraction of the usual crowd. They met safely outdoors, in the municipal park across the street from the Wildwoods Convention Center.

Wilkie spoke about expanding services to veterans in the area and new incremental improvements planned. One major change — a new, better veterans clinic in Rio Grande to replace one at the Coast Guard base in Cape May — was expected to be open in time for the convention, but then the pandemic slowed everything down.

The Veterans Administration Medical Center in Wilmington, Delaware, now has outpatient clinics in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, and Wilkie said “we’re probably expanding some of our hospital capabilities down on the Delaware/New Jersey border.”

Wilkie said a program that videoconferences with patients will be expanded nationwide, increasing care while limiting travel and risk of coronavirus contagion.

That capability in particular will seek to reach more veterans with mental health services to help address suicides among veterans — many of them homeless and not getting care. Mental health teleclinics will be placed in Walmart stores, better reaching rural areas and veterans without online access.

These will build on numerous improvements the past few years in services to veterans in South Jersey. The Wilmington VAMC has partnered with area hospitals to make more procedures available through the Veterans Choice Program. The N.J. Hospital System has trained seven teams, each with a medical professional and a veteran, to provide mental health first aid courses to veterans, their families and caregivers. And the VA contracted with two Atlantic County nursing homes to provide care to veterans, with the county’s Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield opening a special wing for veterans.

In May, the VA sent 10 nurses each to Meadowview and four other N.J. nursing homes chosen for extra help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilkie spoke about the VA’s pandemic response and thanked Gov. Phil Murphy for “putting veterans front and center” and being one of the first governors to contact the VA for help.

The VA’s pandemic record is very reassuring.

Wilkie said that, as of the convention day, among the 7,500 patients in the VA’s 134 nursing homes nationally, only three VA patients had COVID-19. Of the 9.5 million veterans who are part of the VA health system, 1,500 have died. He said VA hospitals had the lowest employee infection rate of any health organization.

Years of increased veteran services have been accomplished with the support of every local state legislator and now retired longtime congressman Frank LoBiondo. His successor, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, also addressed the convention, where the New Jersey VFW named him Legislator of the Year.

It’s good to see so many collaborate at all levels to accomplish pretty dramatic improvements in care and services for those who served the nation in uniform. As veterans showed during their service, there is great power in working together.

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