Commentary from Jim Jones: Notable Manatee veterans advocate Lee Kichen wraps up milestone career

November 11, 2012 

Retired Army Lt. Col. Lee Kichen is a veteran's veteran.

In addition to helping thousands of veterans individually with their benefits and problems, he also has been a leader in landmark issues potentially helping millions of vets he never met.

Kichen served as state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in St. Petersburg, and also doubled as the VFW's state legislative chairman.

He recently retired, ending a significant chapter in decades of service to the United States and his fellow vets, including 27 years in uniform.

Veterans widely regard him as an effective and skilled advocate, ambassador, spokesman and friend.

"Lee is a valuable asset to our veterans community who deeply cares about each veteran," said Andy Huffman, Manatee County veterans service officer. "He is a great guy."

Where do you begin to assess what Kichen helped accomplish?

For starters, he was deeply involved in advocating for the establishment of a national veterans cemetery in Sarasota, and passage of the post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act.

Memories may be starting to fade over the decade-long struggle to open Sarasota National Cemetery. But it was never a slam dunk.

When Kichen began working to bring a national cemetery here, Dan Miller of Bradenton was still our local congressman. Later, he worked with Miller's successor, Rep. Katherine Harris, and her successor, Rep. Vern Buchanan. He also worked with former Sen. Bob Graham.

The struggle to bring the cemetery here was a "torturous process," Kichen recalled.

At one point, plans for a local veterans cemetery suddenly disappeared from a list Congress was considering.

But local supporters helped get the Sarasota location back on the list, and the first interment was held there in January 2009.

Previously, the closest veterans cemetery that could handle casketed remains was in Bushnell.

Sarasota National Cemetery would become a "national shrine," Lee predicted.

He was correct.

It's impossible to visit those rows of white tombstones and not feel an overwhelming sense of history, of collective sacrifice, of duty, honor, country.

There are several other major areas where Kichen played a key role, including ending the military retired pay offset. In essence, previously if a military retiree were to need compensation for a disability from the VA, his or her military retirement was cut by an equivalent amount.

"There is no reason why a military retiree should have to fund their disability," Kichen said.

Just this past week, there was another change benefitting veterans where Kichen played a key role: Amendment 2.

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment that allows any veteran over the age of 65 who has combat-related disability to get a discount on their property taxes.

"Florida is an extraordinarily veteran-friendly state," Kichen said of citizen attitudes and the availability of veterans nursing homes, and VA hospitals.

Kichen is a Vietnam-era vet, who was commissioned as an infantry officer through ROTC at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1970.

As a protest against the Vietnam War, the college's graduating committee decided not to fly the American flag. The cadets skipped the graduation ceremony.

"The fraternity boys were not so fraternal," Kichen remembers.

Soon after his commissioning, he was transferred to the Armor branch, and saw service at Fort Lewis, Wash. He would also see service along the Korean demilitarized zone, command two infantry companies and work at the general officer level in the Pentagon, among many other assignments during his career.

It always seemed that the Army was in transition, shrinking after the Vietnam War, building in the Reagan years, shrinking after the first Gulf War.

Kichen became adept at working with leadership development and government red tape. That would be an asset when he moved to the Manatee-Sarasota area in 1999 after his military service ended.

His work with vets began innocently enough, joining a VFW post in Sarasota because it had "a big M60A3 tank parked in front."

After all, he was a tank officer.

A World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who served as the post's veterans service officer took Kichen under his wing, seeing him as his potential replacement.

"I understood the VA process was complex, fraught with confusion by its very nature. The road to hell is paved with good intentions," Kichen said.

The rest is now history.

"Duty is what we do, honor is how we do it, and country is why we do it," he says.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet@jajones1.

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