The recent National Association of Counties (NACo) annual conference focused on veterans issues this year in the general session as well as in the Veterans and Military Services committee.
The conference met in Adams County, Colorado, this year. The NACo Annual Conference & Exposition is the largest meeting of county elected and appointed officials from across the country and Cleveland County Commissioners and their deputies attend each year.
“We’ve been honored to serve on some key committees within NACo, giving our county a voice in national issues,” said Commissioner Harold Haralson. “As a veteran with service connected disabilities, I feel a strong commitment to supporting our county services to my fellow veterans. I serve on the Veterans and Military Services committee.”
Participants from counties of all sizes come together to shape NACo's federal policy agenda, share proven practices and strengthen knowledge networks to help improve residents’ lives and the efficiency of county government. Operation Green Light, an initiative to help veterans “who are having a hard time connecting with benefits after serving their country,” (read full story here) was discussed at the NACo Conference and endorsed by county officials.
“Being a veteran who was exposed to toxic chemicals at Camp Lejeune, I have first hand experience with working through disability issues with the Veterans Affairs system,” Haralson said. “Having been very frustrated by my experience in dealing with that, I have a strong motivation to try and improve the system. One way of doing that is working with the veterans committee of NACo and their recent efforts in Congress.”
Haralson said the Cleveland County Board of County Commissioners has forwarded resolutions to Oklahoma’s delegation in support of disability benefits for all veterans exposed to toxic chemicals.
“Basically, the organization and the conference is for what we call county commissioners in Oklahoma but who have various titles in other states,” Haralson said. “When we come together and exchange ideas and fight for national changes we can make a positive impact.”
In fact, it was during a NACo conference years earlier where Commissioner Darry Stacy first heard about the effectiveness of having a county veterans coordinator and with the support of the other commissioners, Cleveland County became the first, and only, county in the state to implement a county veteran coordinator.
“We have well over 20,000 veterans right here in Cleveland County,” Haralson said. “Our Cleveland County Veteran Coordinator Charlie Neely partners with area agencies to eliminate veteran homelessness and to assist veterans and their spouses to apply for benefits. That idea came out of a NACo conference and it has made a difference in many lives since we started the program here.”
Haralson said he is grateful to be able to refer veterans he encounters to Neely for assistance. He hopes that Operation Green Light will shed light on the problems veterans face nationwide as well as here in Cleveland County.
As of 2019, 11.7 million veterans are over the age of 65, which is about 61 percent of all veterans. Veterans make up roughly 11 percent of adults experiencing homelessness. Some 70 percent of veterans experiencing homelessness also experience substance abuse, and 50 percent live with mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“This is my last year to attend the NACo Conference, and it was a bittersweet experience,” said Haralson who lost the bid to retain his elected position and will exit the office at the end of 2022. He said he will keep his commitments to the people who elected him and will do his best to ensure a smooth transition when his successor takes office in January.
“I have seen so many elected officials fade away after losing an election, but I am not one to shirk my responsibilities,” Haralson said. “I have remained committed to attending every committee meeting and board meeting possible and will continue to serve out the duration of my term as the duty of my office demands.”
Haralson is disclosing the expenses associated with his attendance in full transparency. “I felt I owe it to the people of Cleveland County and especially to our veterans to represent them at the national level and to learn all I can to help them during my remaining months in office,” he said. Haralson submitted the registration fee of $820 and hotel costs of $1,536.52 to the county for reimbursement. Airfare was $533.96 but Haralson has not had time to submit that or his expenses yet. Expenses are capped at $79 per day.
“If we can move benefits forward for our veterans both here and around the country, or bring more programs and dollars home for our veterans, the price of a conference is a small price to pay,” he said.