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American Legion National Commander James Koutz, center, tours the Manchester VA Medical Center on Oct. 5. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

National Legion commander discusses issues of importance to vets during visit to Granite State

MANCHESTER — American Legion National Commander James Koutz&#'; first month on the job was full of travels and a few surprises that he hopes will lead to future changes.

Koutz visited the Manchester VA Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 5, during a three-day visit to New Hampshire, his first to the Granite State since he was elected Aug. 30 as the chief executive officer for the largest veterans service organization in the country.

Koutz had just traveled north from Washington, D.C., where he testified before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees and met with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

&#';The American Legion has been promised that there wouldn&#';t be a cut in the VA, so we&#';re hoping there&#';s not. We&#';ve got to take care of all the soldiers coming back, especially in the next five years,&#'; Koutz said.

Koutz is concerned about looming federal budget cuts if members of Congress can&#';t reach a compromise before the end of the year.

He said the number of soldiers who have returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries is alarming.

With troops still fighting in Afghanistan, more will be coming home in need of treatment and services.

Koutz is an Army veteran, having served two years in Vietnam with the 169th Engineers.

He knows what it&#';s like to come home from a war.

&#';It&#';s a different world out there with all these returning soldiers with traumatic brain injury and PTSD,&#'; Koutz said. &#';We&#';ve got to be sure we&#';ve got the medical care for them and the money there for them, and not just them, their families.&#';

Koutz said his first month on the job was full of travel before spending almost a week in Washington, where he heard of U.S. soldiers being issued boots that were made in China.

&#';It came up in our hearing, and in fact, I didn&#';t know it — even our soldiers&#'; boots are made in China. What is going on with this country?&#'; Koutz said. &#';If you want to help a soldier, hire one. That&#';s what would help. Hire a veteran. Hire a soldier. Get it made in the U.S.A. Then we could have some jobs.&#';

Koutz succeeded former Commander Fang Wong, whose one-year term ended in August.

&#';It&#';s going to be a great year. It&#';s going to be a fast year, I understand from everybody I&#';ve talked to who&#';s had this job before me,&#'; Koutz said. &#';We&#';ve already gone over a month and it seems like we were just elected yesterday.&#';

After New Hampshire, Koutz was headed to his native Indiana for a few days.

Koutz is from Booneville, a small town outside Evansville in the coal country of southern Indiana. The American Legion national fall meetings were scheduled for this weekend in Indianapolis.

&#';We&#';ll still focus a lot on what&#';s going to happen to the budget and maybe come out of there with some things that we can take to Congress,&#'; Koutz said.

dalden@unionleader.com

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