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State VA recommends closing Brewton veterans office

Atmore veteran Lee Martin speaks to commissioners Friday.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs has recommended closing the Brewton VA office — but Escambia County commissioners want to keep both the Brewton and Atmore offices open, and they say they are not giving up without a fight.

The Escambia County Commission received a letter from officials with the Veteran’s Administration last week informing the group that the Brewton office of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs would be consolidated with the Atmore office. That decision would leave one VA office available to Escambia County veterans to be located in Atmore.

The county commission meeting room was filled to capacity with interested veterans, mostly from the Atmore area, who had come to voice their concerns over the possible closing of the Atmore VA office.

“The ADVA would prefer that the centralized office be maintained in Atmore if suitable office space could be found that would accommodate two employees and their necessary furniture and equipment,” W. Clyde Marsh, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a letter to commissioners. “Although the Brewton office is slightly larger, it is an older facility and is not properly configured for handicapped access.”

Although Marsh’s letter indicated the closing of the Brewton office may come as soon as June 24, Commissioner Larry White said he hopes the county can convince the VA to keep both offices open.

“I’m not ready to give up this fight,” White said Friday. “They issued a letter closing the Brewton office, but I’m not convinced they did their due diligence in making the decision.”

White said commissioners had requested information VA officials used in making the determination to close either office in Escambia County.

“We have requested information on how much money is to be saved in displacing veterans in this county,” he said. “That has not been forthcoming.”

The county commission, not the VA, pays for the facility and utilities for both offices.

Commissioner Brandon Smith said the VA’s decision has changed in recent weeks.

“We received a letter six weeks ago saying they were going to close the Atmore office,” Smith said. “Now we get a letter to keep the Atmore office open.”

Smith reported that a recent meeting with VA officials and commissioners resulted in learning the statistics used in the VA’s decision to close Brewton’s office.

“The state did a study and said there were 40 percent more veterans in the west end of Escambia County,” Smith said. “After that study they came back with this second letter.”

That letter, Smith said, is one he hopes the commission will abide by if a continued fight to keep both offices open fails.

Lee “Levan” Martin, commander of Atmore’s VFW Post, told commissioners Friday he hopes they “take politics out” of the issue.

“I want you to think of the veterans in this situation,” Martin said. “Logically, the office in Atmore would be the choice to make. Our veterans are very active in community services. You have in your hands the opportunity to do something for veterans.”

Joe Dozier, commandeer for the Brewton American Legion Post, said cutbacks by the VA have been happening 20 years, and this cut is no surprise.

“The Veterans Administration has been cutting back for 20 years,” Dozier said. “If a VA officer retires or quits, the position is left vacant.”

Dozier also made a plea to commissioners to work to see if the Brewton office can remain open in addition to the Atmore office.

“I’d like to see both offices stay open,” Dozier said. “There are a lot of veterans on both ends of the county.”

The Brewton office of the VA is considered the main office in Escambia County located in the annex to the Escambia County Courthouse. The Atmore office, a satellite office, is located in the Atmore satellite office of the Escambia County Courthouse on U.S. 31.

The Brewton office maintains a full-time employee who handles office services when a VA service officer is not on-site.

“Rita (Gatwood) does about 90 percent of what goes on in the veterans office,” Dozier said. “Mike Hanks is one of the best service officers we’ve ever had.”

Hanks, a resident of Atmore, currently travels to the Brewton office one day a week while working in the Atmore office two days a week. His workload currently takes him to Monroe County as well.

“Hanks said he could operate out of the Atmore office,” Smith said. “There are 30 to 40 percent more vets in Atmore that come to the VA offices there. We’re behind every veteran we have in this county. We want to do what is in the best interest for the county.”

White said he will continue to question VA officials on their reasons for closing any office in the county.

“We need to be at the VA board meeting on July 2,” White said. “We’ve got to be there. They will listen to the veterans.”