Help for veterans
Jackson County Veterans Information and Referral Office
When: Open first, second and third Tuesdays
Where: 67 Athens St., Jefferson.
Contact: 706-387-7653 or by email.
Veterans Service Office
When: Open Monday-Friday
Where: Room 405, 311 Green St. NW, Gainesville
JEFFERSON — As veterans themselves, volunteers with the Veterans Information and Referral Office know just how difficult it can be to apply for benefits.
“Veterans are the only ones who are really going to help veterans,” said Master Sgt. Bob Heiss, a volunteer and commander of the American Veterans Post 12 in Winder.
Through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are eligible for a number of benefits, including disability compensation, home loans and a pension. Although the process is improving, navigating the paperwork and reaching the right person is still difficult, some veterans said.
“(Knowing why it is so difficult) is the million-dollar question,” Heiss said. “I saw on a ‘60 Minutes’ special that if your application is denied, it could take four to six years for adjudication.”
As a U.S. Marines veteran, Len Bernat, Jackson County purchasing manager, knew how difficult the process could be and led the push to establish the veterans referral office, which opened in July in Jackson County.
“In most cases, the veterans who visit our VIRO are looking for information on what benefits they (are eligible for) and how they go about applying for those benefits,” Bernat said. “Our volunteers will assist them with processing the initial claim via the Internet and will then contact the VA office closest to the veteran’s home address to advise them of the claim and to ensure a quick process. In this manner, each veteran knows that our VIRO is acting as their advocate to ensure they receive a quick response to their request.”
The Jefferson-based office assists any veterans who contact the office, Bernat said, but in Gainesville, the Georgia Department of Veterans Services includes some of the same services.
“We file claims with the VA, assist with retrieving military records and virtually assist veterans who are completing applications for VA health care,” said Harry Evans, Veterans Service Office manager for the Gainesville location.
The veterans seeking assistance aren’t limited to those who recently completed military duty. According to VIRO volunteers, some veterans from Vietnam, the Korean War and even World War II have come into the office with questions because they’ve never applied for VA benefits before.
“They don’t tell you what you’re due, but they will tell you when you’re through (with your military career),” Sgt. Maj. Patrick Amos said. “Some veterans have been out for a while, but never knew what they were eligible for.”
Instead of being in the dark about their benefits, veterans should seek out help, VIRO staff members said.
“The average John Doe on the street needs help applying for benefits,” Master Sgt. Ron Dillon said. “Our job is to give them the application and point them in the right direction. Sometimes they may not even know they are eligible. Say for instance you had a broken bone (while you were serving) and now you have arthritis issues in that area — you could be eligible for certain benefits.
“The thing that we really need veterans to understand is that if they have a question, they need to contact us. The only stupid question is the one that you don’t ask.”
In addition to helping with paperwork, VIRO volunteers help veterans arrange transportation from Jackson County to a VA facility in Athens or Augusta. Because the Jefferson office is staffed by volunteers, it is only open one day a week, on the first, second and third Tuesdays of the month.
“The number of days we are open increased as of January. Last year, with the start-up of the office, we could only staff it on the first and third Tuesdays of the month,” Bernat said. “If I can get more volunteers and have them work with established teams, I could open the office each week. As long as I have volunteers to work the office, I will offer our services to our veterans.”
The Gainesville office is a state agency that has hours Monday through Friday.
Services through either agency are free.