Celebrating Independence Day should remind Americans to express their appreciation to those who have fought for American freedom and served in the U.S. military. Of course, gratitude should come around more than a few times per year.
Two people in Durant are making it a weekly thing and are actively seeking veterans to receive their thanks and a lot more.
Paul Conley and Malinda Burnett are accredited veteran services officers. They are at the Donald W. Reynolds Library in Durant on Wednesdays to, free of charge, assist veterans and their families in getting benefits.
They volunteer for this. And they’ve spent their own money for training, certification and cross-accreditation, and travel expenses to obtain those. It sounds like they really have a passion for being veteran advocates. Plus, Conley is a retired military officer and Vietnam veteran, and Burnett is married to a vet.
The only local cost of the service is the $1 annual officer salary agreed upon with county commissioners in establishing this Bryan County Veterans Service Office.
But Conley said he has registered only 200 in the last approximately 18 months.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics provided by Conley, 3,857 veterans live in Bryan County and several hundred veteran widows. He calculated veterans can receive more than $11.6 million per month or almost $140 million per year if receiving the 100 percent rate at current VA compensation levels. Each veteran’s widow could earn a pension of approximately $1,500 per month.
That is quite a bit of additional income for area veterans. Conley pointed out in his appeal to commissioners that a lot of the money would be spent locally, benefiting the county’s economy too.
“This is individual stimulus,” said Conley after referring to President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan. “If I put it in the hands of Bryan County veterans, it also can go toward local infrastructure through sales tax on purchases.”
The big focus, though, is actually helping veterans. Conley and Burnett help people register for eBenefits, an online service sponsored by Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
Conley said it takes 21 days for paperwork submitted by a fax machine to enter the system. If veterans start with electronic forms, it greatly reduces the response time.
And if Conley might have a question about a particular case, he said he can call directly to Washington, D.C., where there is a desk to do that.
The library, which Conley said has been “very helpful,” has quite a few computers available in the enclosed lab near the entrance. But those who aren’t comfortable with the technology need not worry about it. Conley and Burnett can handle all the Internet navigation and data entry. They’ve can even explain the government-speak.
“What we do is confidential,” Conley said. “We just need to get them to talk with us, chat about their experiences and concerns.
“We’re trying to get the most we can lawfully get for county veterans. That starts with veterans reaching out to get help.”
Conley is calling it Operation Roundup.
“The VA is workman’s comp for military,” Conley said, noting it includes health, compensation and funeral benefits.
He said many veterans will have qualifying disabilities, but those who don’t could get a pension. (Parameters are issued by the U.S. Congress in Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Conley has written a letter to appeal to Congress members to add language that would help veteran widows.)
Conley said his job as an accredited veteran services officer is to “nudge, push and shove” the federal government. He and Burnett also help with sending any appeals through the proper channels.
A local Navy veteran is going through that to appeal process and also doing researching at the library. The veteran, who will be called Bob in this article, was diagnosed with neuromyopathy seven or eight years ago. Bob said he began noticing symptoms in his legs about 15 years ago.
“It sometimes takes a while for things to manifest into a level that is compensable,” said Conley, who added that it took 35 years for his condition to really hit that mark.
Bob is looking to prove a link between his condition and “agent orange.” He’s researching water contamination, examining how military ship evaporators desalinated water during his service. He also talked about being exposed to lead-paint particles as layers were removed with wire brushes from the ships.
“I’m looking for a job now,” Bob said. “It’s hard enough when you’re 70. When you start adding other problems to it, it just makes it harder.”
Among the symptoms with which he copes are numbness in feet and lower legs and tinitis.
“The VA at the patient-care level — the doctors, nurses, the clerks — they break their necks to help out. Every time I go in, I tell them I appreciate it.”
He wasn’t complimentary of the higher end, which he called a “committee” and defined it as critters with a whole bunch of stomachs and no brains.”
“Paul and the VA reps are advocates and they look out for us,” he said.
The Bryan County Veterans Service Office set up at the library is rare in the area. Oklahoma doesn’t have a state program, although there is a National Association of County Veterans Services Officers.
Veterans, widows or anyone who would like more information can call the Donald W. Reynolds Library at (580) 924-3486 or stop in 1515 W. Main St. Also visit www.ebenefits.va.gov and www.donaldwreynolds.oklpls.org.
*Contact Regina Phillips at (580) 924-4388 or @NewspaperRegina on Twitter.