Area veterans groups help with benefits

Published on Sunday, 15 June 2014 23:14 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL

Vickie Melton’s husband of almost 23 years worried about her financial security before his death last year. It was his only worry as he and his family bested doctors’ expectations for a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Tony Melton was a U.S. Marine during Vietnam and exposed to Agent Orange. Melton’s service likely shortened his life, but it also will provide Mrs. Melton benefits for the rest of her life.

Mrs. Melton, 57, worried, too. She and her daughter tried to file for benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but filling out various forms and paperwork and following proper procedures can be tricky for novices.

Before Smith County Veterans Service Office Marshal Joslin guided her through the convoluted bureaucracy and paperwork to receive her benefits, Mrs. Melton had doubts about making ends meet.

“Marshal carried me all the way through it,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t know how the bills would be paid but now I don’t have to struggle.”

For all the headline-stealing problems surfacing within Veterans Affairs nationally, local service staff, veterans’ groups, nonprofits and individuals are working to ensure those who served the nation are returned the favor.

They are flushing out benefits, sometimes long overdue benefits, steering newly returned veterans toward jobs, education, training and counseling to help them reassimilate via Veteran Affairs.

But the bureaucracy is never easy to go through, Joslin said.

Joslin retired from the Air Force after 20 years and went through the benefit process. His experience prompted him to help veterans.

He participated in an experimental program through the department designed to have him in the benefits system in three months. It took three years for certification, he said.

“With everything I went through I realized veterans need an activist to help them and make sure they get the help they need and the benefits they deserve,” he said.

Mrs. Melton’s situation is similar to other veterans, veteran spouses and families around the county, state and country in the way that the paperwork and bureaucracy can be overwhelming, especially in distressing times.

Stories about poor conditions and long waits at Veterans Affairs hospitals shed light on situations veterans face.

Joslin said he believes the federal department is doing the best that it can but has been overwhelmed by demand for benefits ranging from sleep apnea medications, education and job training to post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and illnesses among aging veterans.

Retired Lt. Col. Jim Snow, U.S. Army, said local veterans groups are cooperating and coordinating efforts to meet the demand for more than 16,000 Smith County veterans.

Snow is the vice president of the newly formed East Texas Veterans Alliance, a group aiming to coordinate efforts by dozens of groups, including PATH, the Andrews Center, the county and the city’s Veteran’s and Community Roundtable.

“With the large number of veterans everyone working together helps get the job done,” he said. “The local office adds value to that in being very responsive to veteran needs.”

Last year, the veterans service office helped more than 4,600 veterans with various medical and benefit services.

Joslin said veterans services can always do more because needs are so great. His office is seeing an influx of veterans from out of the county who have limited access to help and resources where they live.

It isn’t for lack of funding on a federal level, he said. The VA Department returned more than $1 billion in funding it didn’t spend in 2013, he said.

Joslin said there are personnel needs, from doctors, nurses and administrators. There are pages upon pages of job openings within veteran services on the Department of Defense site, he said. Some pay lower wages than private sector equivalents but others are on par or exceed industry standards.

He said he believes there is a public stigma about working in veterans’ services just as there is a perception about poor care being provided.

As difficult as the job can be when hearing horror stories of war and helping veterans with the visible and invisible trauma, it rewards, Joslin said. Each individual is different, he said. Every claim is different, he said.

But every veteran deserves personal attention and every benefit available to improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones, Joslin said. Joslin said he and his staff make every attempt to serve those who have served their country.

“When you have someone like Vickie, or a World War II veteran who didn’t know they were eligible for certain benefits, or a 22-year old trying to readjust to civilian life and you help them it feels good,” he said. “It’s one of those pay-it-forward things.”

The Smith County Veterans Service Office is at 210 E. Ferguson St. in Tyler. Joslin and staff can be reached at 903-590-2950.