Veteran services

The Hays County Veterans Services Office Helps Those Who Served

Jude Prather tells the story of a WWII Navy veteran who was rapidly losing his hearing.

The folks at the Hays County Veterans Services office traced his hearing loss to service on a destroyer and its booming big guns. They combed through 75-year-old records, filled out form after form, and argued their case before Veterans Administration judges.

In the end, the aging sailor got the medical care and disability benefits he was entitled to. Prather and his team had the satisfaction of helping another veteran.

Prather has been director of the Bureau of Veterans Services for 10 years. He and his team of four spend their time fighting for military veterans. He thinks his office handles 50 to 70 calls a day. Some of the calls last a few minutes and direct a veteran to the appropriate webpage. Others spend hundreds of hours digging up old records at the National Archives, arranging medical examinations and appealing unfavorable decisions.

“My job is very rewarding,” says Prather, “and very frustrating. With bureaucracy and red tape, it becomes very frustrating. On the other hand, helping a veteran get what they’ve earned is, well, there’s no better feeling.

Prather estimated that there were about 14,000 veterans in Hays County. State law requires any county with a total population of 200,000 or more to have a Veterans Services office.

The Veterans Services office works with other county agencies and private organizations to make sure veterans have what they need.

Various tasks

Staff don’t just mix up papers. It deals with all sorts of real-life issues, from getting grants for a veteran struggling with rent or utility bills to distributing food. When the recent frost destroyed wells and broke pipes, the office distributed drinking water. Staff also rounded up homeless vets and made sure they had shelter in the freezing temperatures.

If there is a Boy Scout flag raising, someone from the Veterans Affairs office will probably be there. They have a stand at the Wimberley Veterans of Foreign War annual 4th of July celebration.

After the deadly 2015 floods in Wimberley, staff were busy finding accommodation for veterans who had lost their homes.

“After the floods, people donated fridges and furniture. I had to buy a storage unit to store all of this. People really reacted,” recalls Prather.

The Veterans Affairs office got its start in 1944 with the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act – commonly known as the GI Bill – which helped thousands of World War II veterans obtain low-cost mortgages, small business loans , educational assistance and unemployment benefits.

“This bill,” says Prather, “fundamentally transformed our country. It took this farmer from rural Texas and gave him the opportunity to go to A&M and become an engineer.

This made home ownership possible, Prather points out, leading to housing estates, suburbs and the baby boom.

Over the years, offices have sprung up to guide veterans through the maze of rules, regulations, and paperwork. The Hays County Office is located in the Old Courthouse in San Marcos Plaza and has been helping veterans since the 1980s.

Like most other businesses and government agencies, COVID has had an impact — both good and bad, Prather says.

Staff were used to managing time-consuming face-to-face meetings that often lasted an hour after chit-chat and war stories. Now most of the work is done over the phone or in virtual meetings. The procedure is more efficient these days.

At the same time, government operations have almost come to a standstill. The National Archives – which the office uses to bolster records – was reduced to a skeleton crew and retrieving the required information was a slow and cumbersome process.

Staff tried working from home for a while, but found that going back and forth to the office really helped get things done. “We always lean in and ask ‘what about this? or ‘how do you do that?’ So being together in the office is very beneficial,” says Prather, who served as a Humvee gunner during the Iraq War.

Although much of the work is done over the phone or through virtual meetings these days, Prather points out, anyone who walks in will be served.

The office works hard to reach veterans at events and through service organizations. “Wimberley (VFW) substation is very dynamic. It always helps restock our pantry,” says Prather.

Veterans Services staff and volunteers deliver food to vets in need throughout Hays County.

Different eras

Veterans from different eras, of course, face different challenges.

WWII and Korean veterans are mostly concerned about medical issues and have complicated cases due to lack of record keeping at the time.

The widely used defoliating agent Orange and its health effects are a big deal among Vietnamese era veterinarians.

For those who took part in the various Gulf Wars, problems range from severe skin rashes and brain damage to depression and anxiety.

“You have to be both a lawyer and a doctor for this job. Every veteran’s case is like a book full of information,” says Prather.

Jude estimates that federal government payments to disabled veterinarians bring Hays County between $90 million and $100 million each year.

Becoming a veteran services officer requires a lot of education and state certification, but like most positions, the best experience is simply doing the work and learning as you go. The Veterans Administration is a vast bureaucracy that operates some 1,700 medical centers and clinics, 135 national cemeteries, and employs more than 400,000 people.

Dealing with all this is quite a difficult task. That’s why Prather points out, “If you know a veteran who needs help, our office is the place to start.

The office is at 111 E. San Antonio, Suite 200 in San Marcos. The phone number is 512-392-8387.