For 19,000 Veterans in the Foothills, Help is Close at Hand

By Guest Contributor March 15, 2014 14:33
Sonora staff: Vickie Sides (left), Eric Larson, Michelle McMaster and Dusty Myers

Sonora staff: Vickie Sides, Eric Larson, Michelle McMaster and Dusty Myers

By Eric Larson

Most discharged veterans don’t think much about benefits, other than perhaps the GI Bill and help with a house loan.

That was my situation in 1972, when I left the Air Force. My college handled GI Bill benefits, and I had no more contact with the Veterans Administration (VA) until I became Tuolumne County’s veterans service officer seven years ago.

As I learned more about VA benefits, I was dismayed to discover that I had missed a significant one. Because I have a service-connected disability, my son could have attended a California state university tuition-free. Instead, I paid his tuition.

I wish I had known earlier about county veterans service offices, so I could have taken advantage of that unique California benefit. I also found out I had been needlessly paying admission to national parks – disabled veterans can receive free park passes, discounts on fishing licenses and more.

When I took over the Sonora veterans service office, I had worked for the county for eight years and was only vaguely aware of its existence. It was the county’s smallest department, but I quickly learned that its two dedicated staff members had a much larger impact on the community than its size would indicate.

The foothill veterans community itself is much larger than many people realize. More than 19,000 veterans live in the tri-county area: 5,123 in Amador County, 6,202 in Calaveras County and 7,724 in Tuolumne County.

Fifty-four California counties have a veterans service office supported by state and local funds, and all vets, whether disabled or not, should pay a visit. They can learn whether they are eligible for federal or state benefits that may include educational, financial and health care aid. Offices statewide are open to all vets, regardless of county of residence.

Veterans who meet certain qualifications – having served in combat or during certain periods of conflict, for instance – may qualify for extra benefits. The office staff can access a veteran’s records, advise him or her about eligibility and then help with the complex application process.

The VA has a sizeable application backlog, and the filing process can be lengthy. Claim decisions can take from a month to two years. Our job is to help veterans through this at-times challenging process.

Veterans with service-connected disabilities are generally eligible for medical benefits at VA clinics – including the excellent one in Sonora – and hospitals. Other veterans may also qualify for some medical benefits.

A medically discharged Iraq War veteran recently contacted our office for help obtaining health benefits. With the assistance of county staff, he was declared 100 percent disabled by the VA. Because he is a retired veteran, he and his family are also eligible for health insurance and VA medical and dental care. On top of that, he qualified for a property tax exemption, disabled veteran license plates, vocational rehabilitation and more.

His wife and children, he also learned, are eligible for educational benefits. His phone call to our office reaped far more than just the health benefits he was first seeking.

Some elderly or severely disabled veterans may qualify for what are known as Aid and Attendance benefits. A World War II veteran in an assisted living facility recently contacted our office for help for the first time. Due to his medical condition, a veterans service representative visited him. His funds were running out, he told her, and he had heard that the VA might pay for his care.

Although the VA will not make direct payments for assisted living, the veterans service representative was able to help him secure a monthly cash benefit because of his wartime service and limited resources.

So why miss out on benefits you have earned? All vets should visit their local veterans service office to learn if they qualify for help.

Local Veterans Service Offices

Tuolumne County: 533-6280, Mon.-Fri. 9am-4pm; Mon., Fri. by appointment, Tues.-Thurs. walk-ins only, 105 E. Hospital Road, Sonora; Michelle McMaster, senior veterans service representative

Calaveras County: 754-6624, Mon.-Fri. 9am-4pm by appointment, 509 East Saint Charles St., San Andreas; Chele Beretz, veterans service officer

Amador County: 267-5764, Mon.-Fri. 7am-4pm 11401 American Legion Way, Jackson; Terry Sanders, veterans service officer

Mariposa County: 966-3696, Tues., Wed., 9am-5pm 5085 Bullion St., Mariposa; Robert Johns, veterans service officer


 Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor March 15, 2014 14:33
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1 Comment

  1. Dori Cobleigh October 3, 17:00

    Mr. Larson, thank you for your informative article, much of this truly was “news”. I hope the aforementioned college refunded the tuition….
    Sonora has so many Veterans in need, in pain.
    Please tell me, and whoever else cares, how to help them in the moment when we see them, and beyond.
    Up the Hill

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