People lose sight of what the Missouri Veterans Commission is and what it does, said Paul Kirchhoff, its new executive director.
The commission is a state agency intended to assist all military veterans, their dependents and legal representatives by providing information regarding the rights of veterans and their dependents, and to assist veterans accessing available benefits through the state and federal governments, according to the commission website. It is responsible for administration of Missouri Veterans Homes, Missouri Veterans Cemeteries and the state Veterans Service Officers program.
Kirchhoff, a retired colonel who lives in Jefferson City, was named the commission's director July 16.
Kirchhoff grew up in California. His wife grew up in Tipton. They have two boys. One remains in high school in Jefferson City, and the other went out of state to medical school.
Kirchhoff served 33 years in the military — both in the U.S. Army and with the Missouri Army National Guard. He served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Prior to his selection as the commission director, he worked as a special assistant to his predecessor.
As the new director of the commission, Kirchhoff oversees an organization that serves more than 458,000 veterans and 1,700 employees in seven veterans homes, five State Veterans Cemeteries and the Veterans Service Program.
Over his first 30 days, as Kirchhoff evaluates the commission and its work, he is discussing with people involved with each of the programs how they might improve, he said Friday.
"As I evaluate things, that's a big part of what I'm doing — is meeting with each of those programs to look at 'How can we improve? How can we get better?' while still maintaining the quality of care for our veterans," he said.
Kirchhoff wants to reiterate that — despite a perception that they are one and the same — the commission is not the Veterans Administration.
The commission came about through the good foresight of people who came before, he said.
"We're very fortunate in Missouri to have the veterans' homes that we do," Kirchhoff said. "Many states don't have the number or the quality that Missouri has."
The homes account for a lot of work within the commission.
"I'm very surprised at how many people that don't know that we have the cemeteries. And we're able to get that knowledge out — even to our own veterans," he continued. "It's a service that's available to our veterans at no cost."
That's impactful for veterans, Kirchhoff said.
The state contains five veterans cemeteries — in Springfield, Higginsville, Bloomfield, Fort Leonard Wood and Jacksonville.
Interment services are provided to veterans, their spouses and eligible dependent children. There is no charge for any of the services provided. Those who choose cremation, according to the commission website, have the choice of in-ground burial or placement within a columbarium. Pre-planning for future burials is also available.
And, the commission offers veterans service officers who provide counseling and assistance to the state veterans and their dependents. The VSOs counsel veterans on available VA and state veterans' benefits but also may complete and submit claims applications with all necessary documentation, according to the commission website.
"To be quite frank, when I got out of the Guard, I did not plan on meeting with a veterans service officer," Kirchhoff said. "I'm healthy. There's no injury that I can relate back to the Guard, but as I talked to the veterans service officers, there were multiple stories of service member getting out and finding there are benefits that they aren't aware of."
Kirchhoff said he now has an appointment next week to discuss with a VSO whether he may qualify for benefits he's not taking into account.
"I wasn't planning on doing it until I talked with our own VSOs," he said. "They convinced me that I needed to set the standard."
If anyone has a question, they are asked to contact the commission. There is a VSO locator at mvc.dps.mo.gov/service/serviceofficer, or veterans may reach out to a VSO by calling 314-253-4455.
The state has 41 highly trained and accredited VSOs across the state, according to the commission website.
Like other agencies, budget shortfalls created by the COVID-19 pandemic are stressing the commission.
"In order to maintain our operations, we have to re-evaluate everything we do. Just because we did it in the past does not mean we can do it going forward," Kirchhoff said. "We're streamlining, but the key is that we maintain the quality of care in our facilities."