Kerr County is home to more than 5,000 veterans. This is 12% of the adult population and is nearly twice the average of the number of veterans residing in Texas.
Veterans earn valuable benefits as a result of their honorable service. It is estimated that federal, state and local benefits bring $100 million to Kerr County. The bulk of this is $84 million from the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA).
The $100 million benefit income received by Kerr County veterans is equivalent to an employer with 2,000 employees averaging $20 per hour plus basic employer benefits.
This is stable income that is not dependent on the swings of the economy. It continues in good times and in bad times.
Veterans benefits do not come automatically. Veterans must apply for the benefits they earn by filing a claim with the respective agency. The claim process is often complex and may require the skills and knowledge of a professional claims representative.
The DVA advises veterans to seek the assistance of recognized claims representatives who have been formally trained, screened and accredited by the DVA.
Kerr County currently employs one full-time and one part-time DVA-accredited Veteran County Service Officer (VCSO). They work from an office in the Kerr County Courthouse and serve veterans, dependents and survivors residing in Kerr County.
Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly recently proposed the closing of the veterans service office due to budget considerations. He stated that the positions are not mandated by law and should be dropped.
But Kerr County veterans are in critical need of VCSO services. The veterans services office must continue to be funded.
A VALUABLE SERVICE
AT NO COST TO VETERANS
The VCSOs obtain a limited power-of-attorney (POA) from each veteran and are the legal representative of the veteran for benefit claims. They file claims with the DVA for a variety of benefits to include service connected disability compensation, non-service connected pension, medical care, education and training, vocational rehabilitation and employment, home guarantee loans, dependent indemnity compensation, aid and attendance, life insurance and final honors and burial. VCSOs do not charge a fee for their services.
The claim application must be on the correct form and be complete and correct. In most cases it is necessary to provide additional documents to prove the claim.
For example, a veteran applying for a service-connected disability for prostate cancer due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam will have to prove Vietnam service and will have to prove the diagnosis of the disease. If these documents are not readily available, the VCSO will utilize the POA provision to get the documents from the appropriate parties.
Filing a claim with the DVA is often compared to filing an income tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). A taxpayers may hire an accountant to prepare a tax return and provide representation before the IRS. But a veteran is not allowed to pay for assistance in filing an initial benefit claim with the DVA.
A veteran may hire an agent or attorney only after the denial of an initial claim. The agent or attorney may receive 20% to 33% of the award to the veteran. But the veteran may continue the use of the VCSO and not pay a fee for services. This allows the veteran to receive the full amount of the earned benefit.
The DVA recognizes and accredits service officers who are employees of state governments, county governments or veterans service organizations. Some veteran service organizations may also have volunteer service officers.
A veterans service officer must be sponsored for accreditation by an accredited organization. In the state of Texas, all VCSOs — by law — are trained and sponsored by the Texas Veterans Commission (TVC).
DEMAND FOR CLAIMS
IS ON THE RISE
Even though the number of veterans decreases each year, the demand for claims representation is continuing to rise and puts severe pressure on service officers to meet the needs of their clients. Vietnam veterans are aging, and most all are now in their retirement years. They are a large cohort of veterans and are now in greater need of supplemental income and health care. They are applying for benefits that they formerly did not use.
Recently separated veterans are better informed of their DVA benefits and are taking them at a much younger age than before. The DVA has done much to improve its image with veterans, and this is resulting in the increased use of the DVA for health care.
More veterans are also requesting the disability benefits that they have earned. The DVA reports that disability compensation payments are increasing by about 5% a year. This is more than the annual cost of living allowance applied to existing benefits.
Recruiters need to enlist men and women from Kerr County to fill the ranks of our military forces. Military service is often hazardous and places a high demand on those who choose to serve our country. Enlistees are encouraged to join the military to earn veterans benefits such as G.I. Bill education and training, health care and home loan guarantees. The VCSO will ensure that veterans will have easy, local access to competent assistance in filing their benefit claims.
Kerr County is now a first-class county with regard to providing fully accredited VCSO services to its veterans.
Kerr County should maintain this status by continued funding of veterans services.
Gary Noller is commander of the Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht AMVETS Post 1000 in Kerrville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.