As the Independence County Veteran’s Service Officer, most of my day is spent helping veterans and their surviving spouses file claims to obtain VA benefits.
These benefits can include disability benefits, survivors’ benefits, burial and pension benefits. I have over 100 open claims out at this time with that number slowly increasing by the day. My office is open Monday-Thursday and if you can’t make it to my office for whatever reason, I do make house calls. I receive several calls per day, so if I don’t answer right away, don’t be upset; I call each missed call back as soon as I can. I often wonder how many veterans don’t know they could be entitled to VA benefits or don’t know where to go to get the process started.
Gary Dowell is the first veteran who comes to my mind regarding unknown entitlements to VA benefits. Last year, he came by my office and asked me if I could help him get his DD 214, the document that details his discharge from the military. I told him that I would be glad to help, but I wanted to know a little more about Mr. Dowell. He sat down while I asked him about his service time and he told me that he served in Vietnam. I immediately thanked him for his service but proceeded to ask what his disability rating was with the VA. He went on to state that he had never filed anything with the VA before so he didn’t have a rating. My eyes lit up as I pushed forward with more intrusive questions about his health. I asked him if he had diabetes, then neuropathy and then asked him about his heart. Mr. Dowell had been exposed to Agent Orange while serving our country in Vietnam. Like so many other veterans, he went about his days without complaining. He worked until he no longer could and has always had a positive demeanor for as long as I have known him. He stopped by my office for a 3-minute request and is now rated 100 percent through the VA. He simply asked for his discharge papers. This is a common scenario for what I have experienced with my Vietnam veterans.
In another case, I drove 15 miles to a veteran’s house because he doesn’t like coming into town. I begged him to file for hearing loss and asked him what he had to lose. I had to explain that this is a benefit, not a handout. If he didn’t deserve it, he wouldn’t get it. He finally said that he could use a pair of new overalls, so he let me file for him. His decision came back and he was rated at 90 percent and can enjoy much more than some workclothes. He later came into my office and thanked me personally which really made my day.
I often look through veterans’ charts trying to find out how I can improve their rating. I find that some service-connected disabilities worsen over time and can be increased. On many occasions, I find Vietnam veterans who could possibly obtain a 100 percent rating but don’t know it.
I play pickleball all the time. I occasionally get to share the court with a veteran. Fred Krug recently got introduced to pickleball. Our conversations on the court lead to me asking him what his disability percentage was. He hadn’t been checked in over a decade with a service-connected heart condition. He told me that he had recently gotten stints put in and I convinced him to file for an increase. He is now 100 percent and playing in a December pickleball tournament with my son. Veterans are a family. It doesn’t matter where or when you served, it only matters that you served.
Darrell Nelson was given my contact information by one of my middle school teachers who knows what I do for veterans. He was very specific when he told me how blessed he was to have a 70 percent rating and didn’t want it messed with irresponsibly. I assured him that I would not carelessly get his disability reduced. In fact, I only filed new claims on his behalf, leaving his existing claims alone to ensure no reductions could take place. He is now 100 percent disabled twice over.
A man I now call my friend, Ken Calaway, had been fighting to increase his disability every year for the last 5 years to no avail. I knew he was permanently disabled at the max level; I just needed to convince him that I would be able to help him. His back pain prohibits him from driving into town on most days, so I drove up to his house several times in order to go over the evidence. When he decided to file for the increase, he requested my assistance with his VA interview. I agreed, and went up to his house with my smartphone and had his interview via video conference. After waiting years for justice, he was granted 100 percent disability. But what he was more appreciative of was me introducing him to Dr. Amber Fore in Cave City who helped him with a personal letter to the VA and addressed some physical issues he was dealing with. He sings her praises every time I speak to him. He attributes me introducing her to him as my greatest accomplishment. Mr. Calloway has always been direct with me. He has always told me how it was going to be. That is how a veteran speaks. He tells me when he doesn’t like something and he tells me when he appreciates something. He’s not a complicated man. To tell you the truth, the money wasn’t what he was looking for primarily; he wanted justice and to be treated appropriately. He finds it necessary to remind me that meeting Dr. Fore was the best thing that has happened to him. She is pretty great. She goes above and beyond for my veterans who come to see her.
These are just a few of the stories that I wanted to share with you from my experience in this office. Veterans should set the standard. I’m not easy on them nor do I cut them any slack. I speak directly to them with respect and empathy. They look me straight in the eye and shake my hand. They know where I stand; they let me do my job. The thing is, I love my job. I want to help as many veterans as I possibly can, so if you know one who hasn’t met me, send them my way.