Veterans Services: Helping Veterans and Their Families

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 12:00

For veterans and their families, filling out the paperwork for federal benefits can be a daunting task. Help is available from the county Veterans Service Office in Sonora.

There, veterans’ representatives Beth Barnes and Michelle McMaster oversee nearly 3,000 active cases for local veterans or family members who have filed federal claims.

“We are advocates for veterans,” says Barnes, a 31-year county employee. “Our primary mission is to assist veterans in their ability to establish benefits with the Veterans Administration.”

The Veterans Administration is now the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but the original name is still commonly used, Barnes said.

Two of Barnes’ three sons, all Sonora High graduates, served in the Marines, so she has a strong feel for the concerns of veterans and their family members. More than 10,000 veterans call Tuolumne County home, Barnes estimates – nearly 20 percent of the county’s population.

Many of those veterans bear scars, whether physical or mental, Barnes says. Many have medical conditions linked to their service in the U.S. military – conditions that may have gone undiagnosed for years.

Whether they served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the more recent wars in the Middle East, Barnes helps them apply for federal benefits offered to service members, their spouses and their children. These benefits include, but are not limited to, medical care, disability payments, college tuition, home loans, funeral expenses, and survivors’ benefits.

To receive benefits, veterans must fill out lengthy forms with details of military service, finances, health conditions and medical care. Putting the wrong information on the wrong line can delay a claim. Not to worry, Barnes says: She and Michelle do all the paperwork. Veterans or their family members simply provide the information.

“The forms can be confusing and in a lot of cases we’re working with an elderly population,” Barnes says. “It really helps if we do it for them. We may have to send them home for more information, but we will ultimately complete the forms and file the claims for them.”

In 2007 her office filed 771 claims, most for Tuolumne County veterans. Veterans from other areas sometimes use the Sonora office, which is close to the VA’s outpatient clinic on Greenley Road.

“Many of our veterans have retired, losing the health insurance they had, or their premiums are just too high,” Barnes says. “In cases like that we have been successful in getting them health care from the VA, which can leave them with a little bit more money in their wallet during their retirement.”

Through VA clinics and hospitals, the government provides free medical care to veterans who served in combat, earned Purple Hearts, have low incomes, or have “VA-rated” disabilities, among other criteria.

The guidelines as to which disabilities are “rated” and thus qualify for benefits are complex. For example, a “boots on the ground” soldier in Vietnam who was exposed to Agent Orange has a “presumptive disability,” meaning he qualifies for benefits.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, however – despite its huge and lingering impact – is not presumptive, meaning a veteran must first seek counseling and a diagnosis, Barnes says.

While the list of “rated” disabilities is long, so is the list of illnesses and disabilities that at least initially defy diagnosis, as each generation of soldiers encounters new battlefield conditions and chemical agents.

Barnes points to Agent Orange’s legacy of diabetes and various cancers. Today’s young veterans also are returning with illnesses that baffle doctors, she says.

Whatever the illness, condition or concern, and whether they completed their military service in 1945 or in 2008, Barnes wants veterans to know they can find help at her office. Appointments aren’t necessary. Barnes never schedules them. It’s part of her office philosophy: Be open, available and ready to help at a moment’s notice.

That may mean helping an elderly veteran who can’t afford medical care. Or a young veteran grappling with a life-altering disability. Or a new widow who needs to arrange for a headstone, another service Barnes’ office provides.

“It really is a good idea to come here first,” Barnes says. “We can explain what is necessary to have a successful claim. We can also explain that the person might not have a claim based on the information given to us, but that very seldom happens.”

Veterans Service Offices

Tuolumne County

Location: 105 E. Hospital Road, Sonora; office is on the east end of the Tuolumne General building on Nevada Street

Hours: 9am-noon, 1-4pm Monday-Friday, drop-in basis only

Contact: Beth Barnes, senior veterans’ representative and Michelle McMaster, veterans’ representative, 533-6280

Services: Help with registration and claims related to disability compensation, pensions, health care, in-home and nursing-home care, VA-backed mortgages, referrals to other agencies. Bring veteran’s DD-214 (discharge papers), or they can order copies for you.

Calaveras County

Location: 509 E. St. Charles St., at Mountain Ranch Road, San Andreas

Hours: 9am-5pm Monday-Friday, by appointment only

Phone: Chele Beretz, veterans service officer, 754-6624

Services: Help with registration and claims related to disability compensation, pensions, health care, in-home and nursing-home care, VA-backed mortgages,  referrals to other agencies. Bring veteran’s DD-214 (discharge papers), or they can order copies. Beretz will come to the veteran’s home or to any one of eight outstations in the county, if needed. As a county eligibility worker, she can also assist with food stamps, Medi-Cal and more.

© 2008, Friends and  Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 12:00
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