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Veterans Leaving Unused VA Benefits on the Table

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Veterans often are not aware of the benefits they’ve earned. The VA provides medical care and offers many other services as legislated by Congress. However, the largesse of what is available is scarcely realized by the millions of veterans. If we can provide that information or help our veterans get those benefits, we will. It’s our part of mission: to ensure our veterans get what they earned to get transition from the military to civilian with the goals of personal success and dignity. The vast resources are there; they have been earned with service to the nation.
— Swords to Plowshares

Florida Courier – Only a fraction of Florida’s 1.6 million military veterans get the benefits they’ve earned by serving, leading the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to launch a campaign to find those who should be getting millions of dollars left on the table.

Many of the state’s veterans are paying high premiums or out-of-pocket for health care and other services they should be getting for free from the government, retired Army Col. Mike Prendergast, director of department, said Wednesday.

Paying twice
And many vets and their family members get services via other programs that cost Florida taxpayers needlessly.

“Any type of health care, counseling, education or other services that are out there (that veterans are getting through other government programs), that could get paid for by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in effect means that potentially, our taxpayers are paying for that service twice,” Prendergast said.

Florida has the third – largest population of veterans, but only 260,000 of the 1.6 million are drawing the benefits to which they’re entitled the agency says.

Focus on Vietnam
Florida led the nation in violence against homeless people last year and drew national headlines in late May because of the bizarre “face-eating” attack on a homeless man in Miami.

Among the crimes law enforcement officials saw was a 2006 cluster of attacks by teens using baseball bats. The skull of one victim, 45-year-old Norris Gaynor, a homeless veteran, was split as he slept on a park bench.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the numbers of homeless families and children are growing – to one in three of the total homeless population. Veterans make up more than one in 10 homeless people.

Vets hesitant
The campaign will have a special focus on Florida’s 449,000 Vietnam-era vets, who make up more than a quarter of all veterans statewide.

Commander Mark Alvarez of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Tallahassee said Vietnam vets are often wary due to how they were treated when they returned from an unpopular war.

“We weren’t that well received,” he said. “But times have changed.”

Alvarez also said that veterans’ services, both federal and state, are much improved since that time.

“The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is reaching out more than ever to veterans, to let them know what’s out there and how they can help,” Alvarez said. “And I think we’re getting better educated and not being so reluctant.”

Homeless vets
Homelessness is another problem for veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era. But according to Prendergast, the numbers have dropped in Florida thanks to an aggressive campaign by the federal government, dovetailed with state and local veterans’ programs.

“Just in the past year, our numbers have dwindled by about 2,000 who have reintegrated into their communities,” he said.

The state campaign is also reaching out to 140,000 women vets and to 231,000 veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

“Our needs are very different, depending on our stages of life,” said former Army Capt. Courtney Heidelberg, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For instance, James Brian Fox, a returning Air Force vet enrolled at Florida State University, said he’s now able to get a higher education thanks to paid tuition and five years of free health care.

“To all the veterans out there who are thinking of maybe separating and going to school,” he said, “there are people here waiting to help you.”

An app for that
Fox also noted that the veterans agency’s outreach campaign includes new media, which he praised for its effectiveness in connecting with his contemporaries.

“The mobile app is great,” he said. “Young people use the Internet for absolutely everything nowadays.”

Prendergast urged the loved ones of Florida vets to help them qualify for services – especially Vietnam-era vets. They might not be ill now, he said, but in ten years they might be suffering from a disability related to their time in Southeast Asia, where they could have been exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange.

“Whatever branch of service we earned our stripes in,” he said, “we never leave a man behind – or a woman.”

Source: Florida Courier, September 6, 2012, by Margie Menzel

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